Airlines Pressed to Be More Open on Fees

7:51 AM, Oct 3, 2012   |    comments
The American Airlines ticket counter at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (Getty)
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Washington, DC (written by Bart Jansen/USA Today) -- Two advocates for airline passengers on Tuesday blasted the difficulties consumers have comparing fees on baggage and other services, but agreed to wait before trying to force more information out of airlines.

"It's outrageous that people can't comparison shop," said one of them, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, during a meeting of a panel that is making consumer recommendations to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

She chairs the four-member Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection, whose first recommendations for consumer protection rules are due to LaHood on Oct. 15.

Another member, Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, said LaHood should force airlines to provide their fees for checked bags and seat assignments to websites that allow comparison shopping before a ticket is bought.

Fees have been contentious as airlines increasingly price their tickets piecemeal. Airlines must post the fees on their websites, but the fees are sometimes collected as late as during check-in.

Leocha and Madigan criticized airlines for forcing customers to search a specific airline's site, then changing to another airline's site to compare fares and fees -- only to find that the first fare might have disappeared.

But the airline industry's representative on the panel, David Berg, said carriers are competing on prices among all their services.

Berg, general counsel for Airlines for America, said forcing them to provide fee information would hurt airlines in their fee negotiations with companies that provide comparison pricing to sites such as Travelocity and Orbitz.

"Not all airlines are set up to sell bag fees at the time of the reservation," said Berg, citing Delta Air Lines, which asks customers to pay bag fees in the final day before a flight. "We are opposed to a mandate."

Rather than force a confrontation, the panel agreed informally to recommend transparency in airline ticket pricing to LaHood. The group will wait for a federal rule that's being drafted and is expected in January, to see how the department deals with the contentious issue.

Samuel Podberesky, the DOT's assistant general counsel, said the rule that's being drafted also could include provisions that would:

-- Force smaller airlines to report flight delays and mishandled baggage, as larger airlines already do. As regional carriers fly more than half of all passengers, they often don't report their mistakes so that customers can compare their performance.

-- Require travel agents to disclose incentives they receive from airlines, in an effort to make customers aware of possible preferential treatment.

-- Force airlines to better disclose special fees, such as those on oversize and overweight luggage, so that passengers are aware of the costs they face.

"What we started noticing was monstrous fees," Podberesky said, citing the example of a 100-pound bag to Asia. "You could end up paying more for the bag than for the person."

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