How often has that eye-catching $79 airfare actually cost $79? Exactly never.
Nobody minded much when airlines tacked on a few more bucks for government taxes and fees. At least they totaled up the final price before you hit the "purchase'' button.
But the onslaught of fees — bag fees, reserved seat fees, early boarding fees and the like — now can launch that ticket price into the stratosphere after you've already agreed to buy the basic transportation.
Enter Uncle Sam. On June 2, the Department of Transportation filed a bundle of proposed consumer protection rules that took up 23 pages of small type in the Federal Register.
Passengers denied boarding on oversold flights would get more money. Travelers could cancel reservations within 24 hours without penalty (some airlines already allow it). The feds might even ban peanuts on flights or establish "peanut-free zones'' to protect fliers allergic to the snack.
None of the ideas would impact more travelers than DOT's ideas for making airlines disclose the full ticket price, fees and all, before a buyer pulls the trigger.
"Consumers never really know what they're paying,'' says Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance. "You give them your credit card number, then they tell you about the additional fees.''
Major U.S. airlines and their primary trade group, haven't taken a stand yet. Carriers agree on the need for a reliable and "economically viable'' air transportation system, the Air Transport Association said. They'll consider all the proposed rules based on those standards and on "minimizing potential passenger inconvenience.''
Expect airlines to fight tooth and nail to stop new fee disclosures. Here are a few of the arguments they'll make:
How many customers will wade through a laundry list of options before taking their business elsewhere? Will airlines be forced to disclose the price of shipping of snow skis? Or the fees for a pet or an unaccompanied child?
Carriers will gripe about being the most regulated unregulated industry in the land. They'll ask, does the movie theater have to give you prices for the large popcorn and Raisinets before selling you a ticket?
Nonsense. There ought to be a way for consumers to compare the full cost of a trip without searching websites of several airlines for various fees.
The DOT hasn't embraced an answer but asks for public comment on two ideas:
• Require carriers to advertise two prices. One a "full fare'' with only the airfare and government taxes and fees. The other a full fare, plus bag charges that airlines used to provide for free (a laptop or purse, a carry-on bag and one or two checked bags. Maybe an assigned seat, too.)
• Make airline websites display a checklist of optional fees. Consumers could pick what they want and get a total price before they buy.
In the meantime, DOT officials put airlines on notice they've zeroed in on some interim steps. They include putting notice of new or increased bag fee on an airline website's home page and displaying bag fees on each passenger's e-ticket confirmation.
If airlines don't like extra government scrutiny, they've got no one to blame but themselves, outspoken aviation consultant Michael Boyd said. "The airlines are generating consumer outrage because of all these gotcha rules."