A new rule that goes into effect later this month will require airlines and others to include government taxes and fees — along with any mandatory charges — in their advertised fares.
While airlines are going into the new regs kicking and screaming (Southwest Airlines has already filed a lawsuit), consumers are preparing to find a rare bolstering of their rights in an industry that continues to strip the thin bed of comforts right out of their seats.
Starting Jan. 26, the U.S. Transportation Department ruling means airlines comply with full disclosure in their advertised fares. The prospect of post-purchase price increases will be prohibited — allowing passengers to keep their reservations without payment or cancellation penalty for 24 hours after booking (this part of the ruling takes effect Jan. 24).
Airlines will now be required to disclose baggage fees upon purchase of the ticket, and those same baggage allowances and fees will have to apply throughout a journey, and be shown on electronic ticket confirmations.
While these may seem like basic buyer’s rights: to know what you are purchasing at the time of purchase and to be assured that a bait and switch game – oh that thing you bought at that price? Just kidding, it actually costs this price unless you want to sit in cargo – cannot prevail, these rights are actually under attack. As recently as last September, Korean Air put out a low introductory fare and then, two months later, raised the price on all those ticket holders and threatened to cancel the tickets unless the passengers paid up.
Flyers who purchase their tickets online are accustomed to seeing the cheap fares they hooked sometimes quadruple in price with each click as they find the price is for the seat only – if they want to take any clothes with them or sit in anything other than a spewed out middle seat, it’s going to cost them on top of other hidden taxes, “convenience fees” and surcharges.
A recent trip on Spirit Airlines from Los Angeles to Las Vegas by a frequent traveler involved a ticket that cost $9 each way at its base. But the $18 roundtrip ended up costing $113 (excluding checked bags) for a flight that was supposed to be leaving from one terminal at LAX but ended up leaving from another with no warning or information, was nowhere to be found on electronic monitors anywhere, produced no staff to help passengers find correct information, ended up leaving 150 minutes late at the located gate with no staff in sight to answer questions or tell passengers when the flight would actually depart, and sat for further delay on the tarmac to remove a gentleman with Middle Eastern features. When staff was finally accessed before the flight, they hassled passengers with properly sized and paid carryon luggage to check in their luggage so the airline could collect extra fees. They bunched up all passengers into crowded rows and would not allow them to move into any of the many completely vacant rows. They would not serve even water without extracting a charge for it.
In June, Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines tried to block several of the new rules, including the 24-hour grace period and some of the fee disclosure requirements. Airlines charge the new transparency laws violate their free speech rights and are challenging the laws in federal courts. They also claim discrimination as they allege they are the only industry required to make such disclosures in their advertising messages.
According to a survey conducted by GO Airport Express, a Chicago-based ground transportation provider, a small majority (54%) voiced a preference for itemized fees, while 46% said they prefer all services to be included in the overall ticket price. The 2011 American Customer Satisfaction Index, a survey based on 70,000 interviews a year, ranked their satisfaction with using U.S. airlines below their affection for using the post office or filing forms with the I.R.S.
Meanwhile, earlier this month AirTran Airways became the latest company to be taken to task on price disclosure matters. The DOT says AirTran, which is in the middle of a merger with Southwest Airlines, violated known rules when it noted that taxes would apply to advertised $59 one-way fares last fall, but that the airline did not quantify the additional charges for passengers.
AirTran has been hit with a $60,000 fine for this omission.