The Internet brought a revolution to air travel. One that scared most airlines silly.
Suddenly, people could search online travel agencies to comparison shop the price of flying from Point A to Point B on a half dozen or more carriers. Predictably, fares dropped.
But now, consumer advocates worry that the transparent market has turned murky. The reason: all those fees for stuff airlines used to provide for free.
Go to travel sites like Travelocity, Kayak or Orbitz, and the fares that pop up don't necessarily reflect the full cost of your trip. I shopped a round-trip flight from Tampa to New York City on a long April weekend.
Expedia showed Delta and JetBlue with the same price: $201.41. But that didn't include the cost of checking a bag. Delta charges as much as $50 extra for a single piece of luggage, $120 for two. On JetBlue, the first bag is free and the second costs $60.
When booking on airline Web sites, the fees typically don't show up until you've already entered your credit card information and agreed buy the ticket.
"If there's a fee you have to pay, it should be disclosed before you hit the 'book' button," said Chris Elliott, travel columnist and reader advocate for National Geographic Traveler magazine. "Disclosure is coming to a point of no return."
That's a bit of an exaggeration. Airlines list fees on their Web sites. It often takes some digging, but some carriers provide links right on their home page. They contend that charging passengers only if they want certain services keeps fares down for everyone else.
Keeping track of the fees can be a full-time job. Airlines now charge for blankets and pillows, for roomier exit row seats and for buying tickets from their Web sites.
The revenue is huge: Airline fees topped $2 billion in the third quarter of 2009, up 36 percent from the same period a year earlier. Checked bags made up the lion's share. Critics say it's in the airlines' interests to keep the fees "hidden."
Legislation that would force airlines to disclose fees before customers buy a ticket was in the Senate's version of a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill passed Monday.
The trade group for airlines says its members shouldn't be required to list fees for every service they offer before selling a ticket. That would be like requiring car dealers to list every option on the window sticker, said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association .
"It isn't reasonable to disclose to (customers) which services they haven't purchased before buying a ticket," he said.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.