Media distortions are hurting consumer work to require airlines to publish all airfares and fees
Two recent stories distorted what consumers want when they buy airline tickets. Passengers really don’t care how many fees there are. Nor, do they hate ancillary fees. Consumers just want a way to see the full cost of travel prior to purchasing a ticket.
An OpEd by a major airport association CEO misinterpreted the consumer position on fees. Three days later, a second article in the Wall Street Journal noted “researchers have suggested that unbundling angers customers.” Both may seem correct; however, they are wrong in a very specific way. Plus, these newspapers are read by many of the law and regulation makers in Washington, DC. Thus, I am compelled to present the real passenger’s voice. Travelers United has been in the middle of the airfare transparency battles for the past decade.
Passengers want to know the full price of airfare together with extra fees
Travelers United has participated in debates, hearings, round-robin meetings with staffers, and comment writing. We still have regular discussions with the Department of Transporation about airfare transparency. Plus, we’ve been the main force bringing together other consumer advocacy organizations. So far, all has been to little avail.
There have been small victories, such as the full-fare advertising rule enacted by DOT in 2012. It was a part of the package of passenger protection rules that DOT enacted at the beginning of the Obama administration. However, to this day, airlines do not publish their flight-specific and passenger-specific ancillary fees to allow true comparison shopping.
We really don’t care how many different fees airlines tack onto airfares. But, we do want to know the full price of airline transportation, including all extra fees, before we purchase an airline ticket. We don’t like surprises. Passengers don’t like to feel cheated. Travelers don’t want to be blindsided.
Tell us the full cost of travel. That is what we ask. Recent news stories have it wrong.
An OpEd was published on January 31, 2020, by the CEO of one of the major airport associations. In it, he asserted that airlines have perfected the art of imposing “ancillary” fees on passengers. But they are not willing to allow airports to increase their fees on passengers by even a few dollars.
Next, a Wall Street Journal story points to consumer anger with extra fees. The gist of this story is that airlines should not listen to gripes about airline fees when passengers seem to accept them.
The assumptions about passenger attitudes toward extra fees are wrong
It is not the extra airline fees that irritate passengers. It is the lack of price transparency, the feeling of being fooled, the belief that they are being fleeced. If airlines would simply outline their ancillary fees and honestly publish the full cost of travel, passengers could accept the total airfares.
Airline passengers are not stupid. We are not out to force airlines to lose money. We understand that the aviation industry needs profits to ensure that we arrive at our destinations and arrive safely.
However, every passenger and every business travel manager wants to comparison shop for airfare. The only way that a free market can operate in the airline industry is with honest pricing. Only then will full, true prices on airfares and extra fees be compared across airlines.
Passengers’ wallets agree with comparison shopping
In Europe and, increasingly, in the US, low-cost carriers have some of the most transparent websites. They allow passengers to construct a total airfare. Airlines that generate the most profits from ancillary fees — like Spirit, Ryanair, and EasyJet — make it simple to see the final cost of travel.
The full-fare network airlines like Air Canada, Lufthansa, American, United, and Delta still play a hide-the-fee game. However, they are learning that when they allow passengers to comparison shop between basic economy and main coach airfares within their own sites, flyers will most often choose a more expensive and comfortable option.
The media and our representatives in Washington, DC, have it wrong. Passengers do not hate ancillary fees; they hate being surprised by fees during the buying process. Rather than being ill-advised to listen to their customers, airlines should continue to listen to them carefully.
Even with the social media backlash at more fees, the added passenger spending on extra fees shows travelers are willing to pay for what they want. Travelers are voting with their wallets. At Ryanair, which ranks as the most hated airline in U.K. consumer surveys, passengers are paying more for extra check-in fees.
Airlines should not assume that all passengers hate extra fees.
Passengers want to know the full cost of a flight. Then they can decide where they want to spend more money. Some passengers like bigger seats and more legroom. Other travelers are looking for more checked luggage. Yet other flyers want to save every penny for more time at their destination. This is where airlines can beef up profits.
Even business travel managers who are shown the full suite of extra services available can then bargain with the airline to get the best deal for their company. These big corporate travel managers do as much comparison shopping as bargain-hunting vacationers. Just like individuals, corporate travel buyers need to see prices so that they can purchase the best for their corporation.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past ten years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.