I just returned from a trip to Madrid, Spain. I flew on American Airlines on a US Airways plane from DC to Charlotte and then on to Madrid. In my seat-back pocket I found a US Airways magazine. Opening it, I was immediately greeted with the smiling face of Doug Parker and his Perspective article, In Support of Transparent Airfares.
It is a shame that Mr. Parker is using his magazine to mislead the public when he could use the very same publication to inform the public of the dangers of steadily increasing airline fees and taxes.
Mr. Parker is misrepresenting the truth through omission.
When he claims that “there is no breakdown of the base airfare versus the taxes and fees collected by the federal government” in the second paragraph of his Perspective piece, he fails to note this failure is entirely the fault and choice of the airlines, not the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
In the next paragraph, Mr. Parker notes, “…the current law has allowed the government to increase taxes invisibly on the airline passengers.” He fails to tell his passengers that American Airlines and US Airways, as well as Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and the rest of the airlines, are free to list every single tax or fee right next to the advertised inclusive prices.
He fails to tell the public that the rule requiring full fare advertising includes permission to break out the taxes and fees following the full airfare-with-taxes-and-fees price. (The only limitation: Those taxes and fees cannot be displayed “more prominently” in the ad than the total airfare.)
Beyond price advertisement, airlines are free to trumpet taxes and fees that they feel are unjust. Every passenger who has received a ticket itinerary or a boarding pass generated by the airlines could receive a clear outline of the taxes and fees imposed by the government, airports and the airlines. There are no limitations on that kind of airline-to-passenger communication. But, none of us has ever seen such an effort, though we do sometimes find ourselves printing out sheets of Sudoku games, weather reports and other advertisements.
Today’s DOT full airfare rule means that when a consumer sees the price of flying from Boston to Miami — or to Timbuktu — in an advertisement, they can purchase the ticket for the advertised price.
If airlines have their way and Congress passes the Orwellian-named Transparent Airfares Act, it would allow airlines to advertise super-low airfares — let’s say $49 from Boston to Miami — that no one could purchase for that price.
Next, consumers would be faced with the drip, drip, drip of additional fees for the likes of first checked bag, second checked bag, carry-on bag, early boarding, seat reservations, airport check-in and more.
Somewhere in the buying process the airlines would help consumers more by “clarifying” the mandatory taxes and fees that will be added to the ticket price prior to discovering the full cost of travel.
Obviously, clarifying taxes and fees is not the endgame for airline executives like Mr. Parker. Everything that Mr. Parker and other airline CEOs claim they want to do can be done under current DOT rules — everything, that is, except deceptive and misleading, low-price advertising.
Unfortunately, airline executives are determined to make airline prices as complex and non-transparent as possible. Even more pernicious — this terrible bill (passed out of committee without debate and no consumer comments) would legalize a form of bait-and-switch pricing called drip pricing that the Federal Trade Commission and DOT have been fighting against for decades.
Anyone who has followed my articles and website posts knows that I have been working for years to force airlines to be more transparent about their airfares and how much it really costs to fly. I have encouraged airline CEOs like Mr. Parker to be honest with passengers and allow them to compare prices across airlines, including ancillary fees.
Steadfastly, the airlines have refused to provide flight-specific, passenger-specific fees for basic services such as checked baggage and seat reservations. Airlines only make airfares available to the public through travel agents. Hard to imagine, but airlines withhold the data that would allow all travel agents, from the one on your neighborhood corner to Internet giants like Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline, to tell passengers how much their trip will cost in full, including extra fees.
Travelers United stood together with the airlines and their unions working to stop the onslaught of new fees being imposed on travelers. From security fees to passenger facility charges and customs and border protection, consumers and airlines have worked together in firm opposition to the voracious government tax/fee appetite. Travelers United will continue to do so.
However, when it comes to truth in advertising, real transparency and protecting consumers against deceptive and misleading airline marketing, Congress needs to stand together with the public and reject Mr. Parker’s misrepresentations and those of the airline industry.
And, airlines that have so many ways to communicate with their passengers should use their power of outreach to educate passengers about creeping taxation using their inflight magazines and videos, boarding passes, blogs, social media, websites and itinerary printouts. That would be real, positive, consumer education.