A Closer Look: It’s time airlines tell the truth, the whole truth about air travel prices
July 17th, 2012

By Charlie Leocha
Director, Consumer Travel Alliance

In the ongoing conflict between global distribution systems and the airlines, consumers are getting the short end of the stick. Rather than doing right by their customers, the airlines are continuing their deceptive practices under the guise of contract negotiations. Airline passengers deserve better — a clear and full price calculation of travel that can be compared across airlines.

We can all argue whether or not commissions and expenses paid through the airline transportation system are exorbitant or unfair. Perhaps airplanes cost too much, interest rates are too high, or jet fuel is at record levels. Pilots may get paid too much, travel agents might want too much commission, and the major reservation networks might want what the airlines consider too much of a business-facilitation fee.

While all of these questions are part of the everyday give and take of business, the airlines are negotiating with reservation systems and ignoring their customers. And, it is not all because they feel these reservations systems, which power almost every travel agent and corporate travel office, are charging too much.  Rather, it is because the airlines are making money from consumer confusion and pricing complexity.

When major industries are involved with squabbles about technology, the government should be the very last resort for resolution. However, after almost half-a-decade of stalling, consumers need the help of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Airlines are simply not disclosing additional fees — the fastest growing portion of airline prices — so that passengers cannot compare prices prior to purchasing airline transportation.

Some major airlines have been stonewalling the disclosure of ancillary fees for four years as DOT has been considering the disclosure of airline fees. Though airlines claim they want to reveal all and create special packages of their ancillary fees in order to make travel better for travelers and differentiate their products, they have done virtually nothing.

Ancillary fees are still impossible to compare across airlines — even supposedly simple charges like baggage and seat-reservation fees. The full cost of travel in many cases is not disclosed until the “Buy Button” is pushed. Families are faced with extra fees just to sit together. Husbands and wives pay different airfares and airline fees based on whether they purchase tickets together or separately using arcane, unexplained fare rules undecipherable even to airline professionals.

Consumers are caught between a rock and a hard spot. Local travel agencies and online travel agencies cannot reveal the final fees because airlines refuse to disclose the fees to the worldwide reservation systems. Hence, passengers can only get complete airline fees by working their way through the airlines’ online buying process, airline-by-airline, an incredibly time-consuming and frustrating process — where consumers who dare to take the time to compare the full cost of travel may find their lower airfares disappear since pricing changes so rapidly.

Where once an American consumer could check on flights and compare prices with a few clicks of a computer mouse, today they cannot when baggage, seat-reservation and other fees are taken into account.

The consumer experience has been eroded and airlines are taking advantage of limited pricing, deception and complexity to lure passengers into booking flights without full information.

It is time that DOT take a stand on the side of consumers and mandate that passengers be told the whole truth about the full price of travel, upfront, so they can make educated decisions about airline ticket purchases.

Forget the intra-industry bickering. Let airlines and their suppliers work out how to be honest with consumers. The first step is for DOT to let the airlines know that in terms of baggage and seat-reservation fees, enough is enough — disclose the fees to every ticket seller wherever the airlines choose to sell their tickets.

I’ll bet that it will only be a short time before the airlines are clamoring to sell even more ancillary fee packages through these same ticket sellers. Restricting pricing information and sales channels is not a path to economic success. The airlines have been moving in the wrong direction for half-a-decade; it’s time DOT gets them back on the path to telling the whole truth.