Over the past three years I have been working together with the Consumer Travel Alliance (CTA) to have airlines disclose ancillary fees so that consumers can compare the full cost of travel. Many have questioned why I have been like a dog on a pant leg about this issue. It is simply because consumers are being deceived by the airlines with unrealistic airfares.
Let’s face it. Airlines have artificially lowered their airfares by unbundling them or stripping everything out of the airfare except transportation — getting from Point A to Point B. For many airlines, airfare does not include baggage, seat reservations, speaking with a telephone agent, interacting with a gate agent, food on the plane, a pillow or blanket and other amenities that were once considered part of airline travel.
The entire reason for the legacy network carriers to embrace this kind of pricing is to make their “airfares” appear to be as inexpensive as Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and some other low-cost carriers. They are misleading passengers into believing that their flights cost the same or about the same as competitors when that is not the case should a passenger want to check a bag or reserve a seat.
If the airlines decided to change the definition of airfare and then disclose to passengers the costs of baggage and seat-reservation fees when applicable so that the real cost of travel could be compared across airlines, CTA would have no problem with the airline actions. But, when the airlines unbundle their airfares with the express purpose of making them appear to be the same as Southwest and JetBlue service, that is deceptive.
When the airlines refuse to disclose these ancillary fees and their prices so that passengers (and even major corporations) cannot easily assess the impact of these fees on their travel prices, that shows a corporate culture of deception.
This unbundling was done under the noble claim that it would give passengers more choice and that it would allow passengers to only pay for services they want.
Why should one passenger with only carry-on luggage subsidize another passenger who carries more luggage that needs to be checked? Why should a passenger who could care less if they are stuck in a middle seat be forced to subsidize passengers who only want a window or aisle seat?
That is all well and good. But when the airlines took the next step of not disclosing these ancillary fees to any ticket agent other than the airline itself, they crossed the line when it comes to deception.
Even after almost half a decade of baggage fees and the growth of fees for scores of other services, airlines have not come clean and disclosed the baggage and seat-reservation fees.
Sixty percent of passengers who purchase airline tickets through travel agents cannot easily compare the full price of travel including the most basic baggage and seat-reservation fees. By only providing airfare without the ancillary charges, airlines are being deceptive.
If there was some consistency with these fees across airlines, the airlines’ non-disclosure of fees might be explained away. However, each airline sets its own fees, exempts some of its elite frequent flier members and has different rules for those who purchase travel using their credit cards. The differentiation becomes even more difficult when exemptions extend to family members and/or other travelers on the “same reservation.”
This is blatant “drip pricing,” a pricing technique in which firms advertise only part of a product’s price and reveal other charges later as the customer goes through the buying process, or worse, long after the initial buying process.
With the airline industry, the airfare is the come-on price and drip charges (baggage, seat-reservation and others) can be discovered long after the deceptive airfare has been purchased.
Delta Air Lines, for example, according to the airline representative on the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections, doesn’t charge for baggage until passengers check in for their flight, sometimes months after the initial purchase. Then, passengers are hit up again for another charge on their return flight.
Delta Air Lines goes out of its way on its home page to make the links to its DOT-required page that lists all ancillary fees difficult to find.
• The DOT-required link is buried at the bottom of Delta’s home page.
• The DOT-required link is labeled “Our Baggage Fees Have Changed. Get the latest updates on baggage and service fees.” There is no simple link that says, “Baggage and other fees,” for instance.
• The DOT-required link is the only link on the home page that does not work with a click anywhere on the description. Users have to specifically click on the individual words “baggage” and “service fees.”
• Logical places where passengers might search for baggage and other additional fees, such as drop-down menus at the “Planning Tools” and “Travel Information” links at the top right of Delta’s home page, do not provide a direct line to extra fees.
The only explanation for these kinds of actions on the part of one of America’s largest airlines is that Delta does not want consumers to clearly see the costs of ancillary fees and see clearly what the final cost of travel will be. It is simply price deception.
What is so disheartening about Delta’s actions — making it difficult to find even a static page with price ranges of ancillary fees — is the disdain it shows for their customers and a corporate pricing culture designed to deceive rather than be honest with passengers.
This culture of deception spans the entire spectrum of airline passengers and the distribution network. Corporate travel managers (some of the top airline clients) cannot get ancillary fees disclosed so that they can budget properly and more easily reimburse employees. Travel agents cannot easily compare prices across airlines inclusive of ancillary fees for their clients. And, the individual traveler who travels infrequently is faced with a near impossible situation should that traveler want to find the best deal.
With price deception ingrained in so much of the airline industry, it appears that Department of Transportation (DOT) action is more important than ever.