A Closer Look: Punishing airfare comparison shoppers at odds with what consumers want and deserve
October 10th, 2012 • By: David Kelly, Executive Director, Open Allies

One of the truly amazing tools brought to consumers by the internet are online travel sites like Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Priceline, etc. These sites enable tens of millions of consumers to quickly and efficiently shop for the best airfares across literally hundreds of airlines and thousands of possible flight combinations.

Prior to the internet, this level of transparency of flight options and price comparison shopping was simply impossible for the average consumer. Now developing and booking a customized flight itinerary — including the most convenient departure time, the shortest total travel time, and the lowest fare — takes just a few clicks.

For consumers, this has created tremendous convenience and the ability to comparison shop for the best value for a given itinerary. And the airlines benefit too, by being able to distribute their fares to a massive worldwide market of travelers.

While this would seem to be a classic example of win-win market efficiency, several airlines have recently started down a path that punishes consumers who use online travel sites. More interested in driving consumers to their own websites than empowering true comparison-shopping, U.S. airlines are refusing to provide in a transparent and purchasable format crucial information about services like checked baggage and seat reservations to online travel sites and travel agents. As a result, consumers are no longer able to comparison shop for or easily calculate the true all-in cost (fares+taxes+fees) of various flight options.

Instead, consumers are now forced into a complicated, time consuming, and frustrating dance between multiple browser windows to see the different fees that each airline may charge for various flight and service combinations. And just try doing this on a cell phone web browser or app!

Inevitably, this lack of fee transparency has left many frustrated air travelers feeling they’ve had to pay “hidden” or poorly disclosed fees.

Recently, Frontier Airlines announced that it is taking things one step further by actually punishing consumers who book flights through an online travel site versus Frontier’s own FlyFrontier.com. Consumers who book a Frontier flight through an online travel site will not be able to pick their seats, will earn 50% fewer frequent flyer miles, and will pay higher baggage fees.

Refusing to share airline fees in a useful format and outright punishing consumers for using online travel sites is an odd business decision. Particularly given the findings of a recent poll conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, which found that 94% of Americans who recently used an online travel site to book their summer travel agreed that, “All airline fee information should be available to travel agents and online travel websites.”

In addition, 95% of Americans who used an online travel site to book their summer travel agreed that, “It would be easier to comparison shop if all airline fee information was available on online travel websites and to travel agents.”

When asked why they supported sharing airline fee information with online travel sites and travel agents, consumers gave a number of common sense answers like “To know the total cost up front,” and “No unexpected expenses.”

While the airlines, as well as all travel sellers, are required to provide consumers with a passive link to baggage fees, the airlines are not required to, and do not provide these fees as well as various other core ancillary fees, such as preferred seat assignment fees, in a way that provides consumers with a comparative all-in price at the point-of-sale. Further, even though some of these ancillary products are considered core travel components by consumers, such as seat assignments for a family that wishes to sit together, these products are not available for purchase at the point-of-sale from non-direct channels.

As a result of the airlines’ continued refusal to share this information, 31% of Americans who used an online travel site to book their travel agreed that they “paid for fees that were not fully disclosed when I initially purchased my ticket for my flight this summer.” That translates to more than 5 million Americans who were surprised by and forced to pay a hidden airline fee after purchasing their ticket.*

These results clearly show that there is a market breakdown being created by airlines’ refusals to provide fee information in a transparent and purchasable format to online travel sites. Indeed, they show that consumers are actually being harmed by this reality, as millions of air travelers are forced to pay unexpected fees.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by Frontier Airlines’ recent decision to punish online travel site users, the airlines do not seem to be listening to their own customers. That’s why it is time for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is the only agency (state or federal) with a mandate to protect the flying public, to adopt a new rule requiring the airlines to share fee information in a purchasable format with online travel sites and travel agents, if airlines are selling their base fares through those channels.

This simple rule will restore transparency, efficiency, and convenience to the tens millions of consumers who use online travel sites to book their airfares.

*U.S. adult population = 235 million. 24% traveled this summer = 56,400,000. 31% of travelers used an online travel site = 17,484,000. 31% of online travel site users paid for fees that were not fully disclosed = 5,420,000 consumers.