Road Warrior

Exposing hidden fees: Feds seek more protections for air travelers

Rob Lovitt

Uncle Sam wants you — to know how much your air travel really costs.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) proposed new consumer protections for air travelers that would require airlines to disclose fees for services including checked bags, carry-on items and advance seat assignments.

"Knowledge is power, and our latest proposal helps ensure consumers have clear and accurate information when choosing among air transportation options," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a statement.

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Such fees are often difficult to determine when searching for airfares, according to DOT, giving consumers an unclear picture of the true cost of travel before they actually purchase a ticket.

Other elements of the proposed rules would:

  • Expand the pool of airlines that would be required to report information to DOT regarding on-time performance, oversales and mishandled baggage rates.
  • Require that third-party agents that provide flight search information (for example, Kayak and Google) identify code-share flights.
  • Require carriers and ticket agents to disclose any code-share arrangements on initial itinerary displays on their websites.
  • Require that large travel agents provide an option to hold a reservation at the quoted fare without payment, or to cancel without penalty, for 24 hours if the reservation is made one week or more prior to a flight's departure date.
  • Prohibit unfair and deceptive practices such as preferentially ranking flights of certain carriers above others without disclosing the bias when presenting carrier schedules, fares, rules or availability.

The proposed changes build on DOT's previous passenger-protection rules in 2009 and 2011, which addressed extended tarmac delays, compensation for being involuntarily bumped and deceptive fares that didn't include all mandatory fees and taxes. The airline industry is currently backing legislation to overturn the latter rule.

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Consumer advocates are excited by the prospect of better disclosure of the á la carte fees that have had unhappy travelers paying more than they expected to while adding billions of dollars to the airlines' bottom lines.

"In the short run, it's everything consumers have been asking for," said Charlie Leocha, director of Travelers United, a nonprofit advocacy group. "It would be nice to know what all the ancillary fees are but some of them—pillows, blankets, Internet access—are truly optional, so there's no need to include them in the overall cost of travel."

Comments on the proposed rule will be accepted for 90 days.

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