WASHINGTON — For many passengers, air travel is only about finding the cheapest fare.
But as airlines offer a proliferating list of add-on services, from early boarding to premium seating and baggage fees, the ability to comparison-shop for the lowest total fare is eroding.
Global distribution systems that supply flight and fare data to travel agents and online ticketing services like Orbitz and Expedia, accounting for half of all U.S. airline tickets, complain that airlines won't provide fee information in a way that lets them make it handy for consumers trying to find the best deal.
The harder airlines make it for consumers to compare, "the greater opportunity you have to get to higher prices," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, whose members include corporate travel managers.
The Department of Transportation is considering whether to require airlines to provide fee information to everyone with whom they have agreements to sell their tickets. A decision originally scheduled for next month has been postponed to May, as regulators struggle with a deluge of information from airlines opposed to regulating fee information, and from the travel industry and consumer groups that support such a requirement.
At the heart of the debate is a desire by airlines to mine personal data about customers in order to sell them tailored services. You like to sit on the aisle and to ski, so how would you like to fly to Aspen with an aisle seat and a movie, no extra baggage charge for your skis, and have a hotel room and a pair of lift tickets waiting for you, all for one price?
"We want to be able to offer our customers a product that's useful to them, that's customized to meet their needs, and we don't think (the Transportation Department) needs to step in," said Sharon Pinkerton, vice president of Airlines for America.
If airlines have their way, passengers looking for ticket prices may have to reveal a lot more information about themselves, such as their age, marital status, gender and nationality.
Consumer advocates question how airlines would safeguard the personal information they gather, and they worry that comparison shopping for the cheapest airfares will no longer be feasible.
"It's like going to a supermarket where before you get the price, they ask you to swipe your driver's license that shows them you live in a rich ZIP code, you drive a BMW, etc.," Mitchell said. "All this personal information on you is going out to all these carriers with no controls over what they do with it, who sees it and so on."
The airline association said consumers who choose not to supply personal information would still be able to see fares and purchase tickets.