Airline fees should be revealed before you buy a ticket

By David ButlerConsumer Reports

Early fall is prime airline-ticket-buying season, and seats are already filling up for holiday and winter travel between Thanksgiving and the New Year.

At Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we know how hard it can be to compare the real cost of tickets because of hidden fees and add-on charges. That’s why we are pushing for reforms so airlines and other ticket sellers are more open and honest with you.

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The U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed new rules aimed at airline fees and other customer frustrations. The department is recommending tougher standards and seeking input about its options to make the system work better. We think the DOT’s proposals would make a real difference in improving the customer experience. We recently filed comments (PDF) with the department in support of several of the specific items under consideration:

  • When you shop for an airline ticket, all information about add-on fees—checked bags, carry-ons, preferred seating, boarding priority, rebooking—should be disclosed right at the beginning of the process when you’re comparing flights. This goes for wherever you’re shopping, whether it's an airline website, an independent site such as Expedia or Kayak, or some other location.
  • Customer-service standards that apply to airlines, such as prompt refunds, prompt notice of changes in flights, and 24-hour holds for reservations, should also apply to tickets purchased through independent ticket agents.
  • The cost of certain add-on fees, such as checked bags, might prompt you to choose one airline over another, based on those fees. These kinds of fees should not be increased after you buy your ticket, even if you decide to pay for that add-on service later.

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  • When any part of your flight on a major airline is actually being flown by that airline’s regional partner, that fact should be disclosed to you at the point the flight is advertised. For instance, if your Delta flight is actually being flown by ExpressJet, you should be informed. Major airlines are required to report on their performance, such as delayed flights, mishandled baggage, and flight overbookings, and they should be required to report on their regional partners as well. All airlines should have to disclose performance information, based on all flights.
  • Ticket agents who do not market all flights on a certain route should disclose not only that fact but also which airlines are marketed and which are not. If a ticket agent has a built-in preference in favor of certain airlines, that bias should be disclosed to you.

Beyond the DOT proposals under consideration, we recommended two additional consumer protections in an effort to better ensure that consumers with emergencies or other legitimate needs are treated fairly: creating a public database for consumer complaints and increasing oversight over the fees you pay to change flights.

This effort by DOT is the latest in a series of reforms we have supported, such as the rules that limit extended tarmac delays and that require upfront disclosure of full-fare prices. We’ll keep working with transportation officials to ensure that airlines treat you honestly and make the booking process more transparent for you.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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