Joseph Hanus/Shutterstock

Joseph Hanus/Shutterstock

Your airline ticket isn’t what it seems to be.

I’m reminded of that whenever I hear from readers like Heidi Fox. Her husband tried to switch his United Airlines ticket from Chicago to Orlando to an earlier flight on the same day, and an airline representative assured him he’d only have to pay a $75 change fee.

But what the rep apparently didn’t say is that Fox’s husband would have to shell out a $744 fare difference, too.

“It was only after he received the emailed receipt that he was made aware of the $744 cost differential,” she says.

For the better part of the last decade, airfares have been a reliable source of consternation and confusion. And with good reason. Airlines have built a business model around charging so-called “ancillary” fees and surcharges, or just not revealing all the details about your flight itinerary because … well, because they could.

Some of the surprises are hiding in places you’re least likely to look for them, from items that used to be included in the fare, like the ability to reserve a seat or check a bag, to change fees, to hidden incentives by the folks selling you the ticket.

But 2013 may be the year we get answers.

The Transportation Department is expected to unveil a proposed rulemaking in May that would, for the first time, require airlines to tell their customers about these unexpected extras. Reading between the lines of the “Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections III” rulemaking, it’s interesting to see what the government thinks might be hiding in your airfare.

It may not be on the airline you thought

If you’ve ever booked a ticket on one airline but ended up on another one, then you already know about the not-so-wonderful world of codesharing. The government is considering adding new disclosure requirements to airline tickets being sold online. Right now, for example, you can buy a ticket through Delta Air Lines’ website from Cleveland to Paris, and you might think you’re flying on Delta all the way — until you pay attention to the bottom of your screen. Your first flight isn’t on Delta, but on regional airline Pinnacle “doing business as” a Delta Connection; your second flight from New York to Paris is not on Delta, but codeshare partner Air France. No Delta at all. Blink, and you might miss this little fact.

Your fare may not have been the lowest available

When you pick up the phone to call a travel agent or log on to a popular online travel agency, you might not be getting the best fare for you. Instead, they may be giving you the best fare for them. The government is considering a new rule that would require ticket agents to disclose any incentive payments they receive in connection with the sale of air transportation. On a practical level, that would be a prominent “sponsored link” next to an advertised airfare. But it could also mean that your travel agent would have to disclose any hidden incentive, bonus or “override” received in connection with the purchase. That would be interesting.

Other fees may apply

One of the most frustrating aspects of 21st century air travel is the myriad of airline fees we’re faced with. They can easily double or triple the cost of travel, and they aren’t always reasonable ($100 for a carry-on bag — puhleeze!). The feds are considering a rule that would require additional or special disclosures regarding certain substantial fees, like oversize or overweight baggage fees. Depending on where in the booking path these disclosures come, it could affect your purchasing decision — something the airline industry is desperately trying to avoid.

I’ve sat face-to-face in a room with airline executives who declared these rules are completely unnecessary. For starters, it’s difficult to find any industry in which prices and fees are this regulated, they say. What’s more, their current disclosures are perfectly adequate and getting better all the time, so there’s no need for the government to get involved. As far as travel agents are concerned, their bonuses are nobody’s business.

As a consumer advocate, I see things differently. My readers want to know how much their ticket will cost before they fly. Plus, they want to be able to compare prices across airlines, including baggage and seat-reservation fees, so they can find the best deal. They also want to know if someone paid their agent to push the fare they purchased. The only reason I can see that these parties aren’t being more transparent is that they profit from withholding information.

And that’s not right.

Do air travelers know enough about their ticket?

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