Air Travel is Full of Surprises, Some Good, Many Not.
Steven Allen says he got a bad one recently when he called to change a United Airlines ticket from San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. To move his return date from Oct. 25 to Oct. 27, the airline wanted him to pay another $300, nearly half the $686 airfare.
Allen, like a lot of leisure travelers, isn’t fully aware of all the fees that airlines now impose on passengers. He says that the surcharge was unreasonable. Other passengers are frustrated by airline fees that are often poorly disclosed until it’s time to pay them. (United’s website indicates that a fee “may apply” for ticket changes, but it offers no details.)
The airline industry is in the process of reimagining its business model, moving away from one in which the ticket price covers the basic cost of air transportation to one in which optional fees account for much of the profits.
A new survey underscores travelers’ dissatisfaction with the change. The poll, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, a coalition of online travel agencies, suggests that many air travelers are clueless about fees. It found that 94 percent of Americans who’d recently used an online travel company to book their travel said that all airline-fee information should be available to travel agents and online travel websites, which isn’t the case now.
David Kelly, Open Allies’ executive director, called the results a wake-up call that proves passengers want to know exactly what they’ll have to pay before they open their wallets.
Open Allies didn’t order up the survey because it’s opposed to fees. It’s pushing the government to force airlines to disclose fees so that its members can sell the optional extras, sharing in the air-carriers’ windfall.
Airlines say that the current rules are sufficient. Transportation Department regulations that took effect this year require carriers to prominently disclose all optional surcharges on their websites and to include any mandatory fees and taxes in quoted fares. “United’s fees are clearly disclosed online, in accordance with federal regulations,” says Charles Hobart, a United spokesman. He adds that United also discloses ticket-change fees in the individual reservation, because those fees can vary.
It isn’t just ticket-change fees that irk travelers. Legacy airlines have added charges for extras. Some discount carriers are more aggressive, charging fees for carry-on bags and for booking through their websites. Together, those fees generated more than $10 billion for the airline industry in 2011, according to the airline consultancy firm IdeaWorks.
But at what cost?
It’s easy to mislead customers, even when you’re complying with government regulations. Airlines do it by not including all charges in the price of a ticket, making the fare seem lower than it is. Charles Leocha, president of the Consumer Travel Alliance, says regulators are struggling with how to address what he considers unfair and deceptive pricing practices. Strictly speaking, the fees now being charged by airlines are completely legal, and their disclosure meets government standards. Yet many passengers still feel duped when they unexpectedly have to pay extra for something while they’re flying.
The problem is simple: In deciding to shift to a fee-based system for airline tickets, airlines did their homework, making sure that every step they took was legal, though not necessarily transparent.
The solution won’t be so easy. It will take creative regulations or new legislation to overcome misleading airline ticket prices. Both of those routes mean that consumers won’t see solutions for more than a year.
A little pressure from the flying public could bring a fix closer. That’s what happened to Allen when he was faced with the change fee from United. He sent a polite email to the airline’s director of customer care and copied me, explaining that he thought the charge was absurd. “Surely,” he wrote, “you can’t believe that anyone who has been charged such a fee would ever fly with United again.”
To his surprise, he received a call a few days later. A United representative reiterated the company’s position that the fee was correct but then added that, as a goodwill gesture, it would be waived.