At best, the proposed Transparent Airfares Act of 2014, a bipartisan bill introduced this month in Congress, would open a window into the many taxes and mandatory fees attached to your airline ticket — charges that the airline industry believes you should know about.
At worst, the proposed law would give airlines a license to quote an artificially low ticket price, undoing years of regulatory efforts to require the display of a full fare. And if the bill passes, critics fear that an airline could quote you an initial base ticket price, minus any taxes and government fees, leaving you with the mistaken impression that your total airfare is far cheaper than it is.
So far, the debate about the Transparent Airfares Act has been fairly predictable, with airline representatives and their supporters lining up to defend the bill and consumer advocates denouncing it. Sound bites in a moment.
But here’s one question that has gone unasked: Are passengers really clamoring for a “transparent” airfare? If so, where are they?
In 2011, the Transportation Department mandated that airlines quote a total price for airline tickets, including all government taxes and mandatory fees. Two airlines unsuccessfully sued the government, arguing that the full-fare advertising rule violated their right to free speech. The Supreme Court declined to accept the case, confirming a lower court’s ruling upholding the requirement.
Since then, I’ve received no complaints from air travelers about their inability to view the taxes and fees on their airline tickets. A representative for the Transportation Department, which collects complaints about airfares, also told me that it’s “unlikely” that anyone has asked it for more transparent prices. “Consumers have consistently confirmed to us that advertising of prices below the total cost of travel causes confusion,” DOT spokeswoman Caitlin Harvey told me.
Perhaps I was missing something, so I asked the representatives who sponsored the bill whether they could put me in touch with some constituents who wanted more “transparent” airfares. Among the bill’s sponsors were congressmen with distinguished records of protecting consumers, such as Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.).
“While the DOT had good intentions, the new rule effectively reduced transparency,” DeFazio said in a prepared statement. “Consumers haven’t been getting the whole picture of what an airline ticket pays for. The Transparent Airfares Act is a simple fix to give people better information.”
Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called my request “a little off-base.”
“How can customers complain if they’re unaware that something — part of the cost — is being hidden from them?” he asked.
Harclerode suggests that ticket prices are deceptive, because customers see only the total ticket cost, so they assume that it’s all attributable to the airline, when in reality 21 percent of the price is the result of government fees and taxes.
“Consumers should know what the total cost of a ticket is, but, just as with other products and services, it should also be clear to the purchaser how much they are paying as a base price and how much they are paying the government,” he told me. “Currently, that is not the case.”