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How should airlines reveal all those fees?

Bernard Mogil enjoyed flying Allegiant Air to visit a daughter in South Carolina last month. Cabin crews were helpful and attentive. St. Petersburg-Clearwater International and the airport in Greenville/Spartanburg were cozy and uncrowded.

But a week after returning home to Sun City Center, Mogil, 80, wrote Allegiant's Las Vegas headquarters with a simple question: What's this stuff I paid for besides the airfare?

Most puzzling was a "convenience fee" that totaled $44.97 for himself, his wife and another daughter. "Was it for your convenience or ours?" he wrote. "And if ours, what form did it take?"

Public annoyance with the growing list of airline fees went on center stage on Capitol Hill last week. The General Accountability Office, travel groups and House members scolded carriers, saying they had to do a better job disclosing fees when customers buy tickets.

Some suggested requiring airlines to wrap the airfare, fees and taxes into a single price to make it easier to shop for the best deal.

That's not easy now.

Fees for previously free services have escalated over the past three years. You might pay to pick your seat, get more leg room or jump to the front of the boarding line. Most carriers charge to check one bag and more for the second. But Southwest allows two free, and JetBlue gives you one.

Last year, the top 10 airlines pocketed $7.8 billion in fees. U.S. Rep. James Obserstar, D-Minn., who chaired the House committee hearing, told airline executives that Congress will legislate changes if their companies don't rein in the charges. "That's not a threat," he said. "That's history."

The Department of Transportation is looking into requiring airlines to do more to disclose their charges for optional services. Carriers do show fees in various locations on their websites, but typically not when customers are booking tickets.

The DOT put airlines on notice that it might require a "prominent" link on their home pages to a complete list of optional service fees. The agency also is pondering whether carriers should be forced to provide up-to-date fee information to independent online booking sites such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity.

Airlines argue that the trend of "unbundling" fares saves consumers money by letting them choose the services they want. Some people shop at Nordstrom's, they say, others at Sam's Club.

For years, the DOT has required that fare advertisements and ticket price totals on websites include taxes and charges all passengers must pay. Should Uncle Sam dictate that airlines "rebundle" fares and fees? Or how they display them?

"We agree all fares and fees should be disclosed," said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines. "But how we do it should be up to us and our customers, not some federal entity."

Back to Bernard Mogil.

That "convenience charge" was Allegiant's fee for booking a ticket on the company website. He could avoid it only by making the purchase at the airline's ticket counter at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International. That information was available by clicking a "taxes and fees" link.

"Outrageous," he said.

On principle, Mogil insists Allegiant should include the fee in the ticket price. In practice, he shopped around and bought from Allegiant. Their tickets were still cheapest.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

How should airlines reveal all those fees? 07/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 4:55pm]
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