Airlines are still squeezing passengers physically and financially
Today, I tried to reserve a seat for a transcontinental flight from DC. Airlines squeeze extra money every step of the way. Not only was there a fee for every kind of issue from seating to early boarding to baggage checks, but there were just as many exemptions to the fees listed for different levels of frequent flier programs. A separate page showed even more issues and complex limitations with frequent flier awards for travelers using different airline tickets and frequent flier programs from the airline named on the plane.
Buying an airline ticket was not a consumer-friendly, buyer-friendly process. And, the system interface made it impossible to comparison shop across airlines. Delta and American allowed me, I think, to carry on a bag and put it in the overhead bin. United Airlines absolutely forbade that option unless I paid for an upgrade but then had no decent seats available for reservations. There is no way to comparison shop without creating a major spreadsheet and getting more answers to pricing questions beyond what can be found on the airline websites.
Where is our protector, the Department of Transportation (DOT), when it comes to helping consumers know how much it costs to travel by air?
Here are other airline pricing problems I experienced when trying to figure out the cost of my air travel.
- I could not get a complete listing of fees that I would pay that were flight specific for me. I had no idea of what the baggage fees would be, what the difference in baggage fees would be when I walk up to the plane with my bag vs. checking it ahead of time, did I get any fee discounts from my frequent flier program membership, what the WiFi would cost, how much food cost aboard the flight, and what entertainment was offered for free during the flights. It was a mystery to me when I started and the website never helped me find what my costs would be.
- I know that there are fees for everything. I knew I was going to be nickel-and-dimed. But figuring out the fees, even with a page dedicated to ranges of fees and more pages with a list of exemptions and perks for being a frequent flier member didn’t provide any more clarity.
- There are even more exemptions depending on the credit card that was used to pay for the flight.
- I have heard that I can cancel my flight with no penalty within 24 hours of purchase, but I couldn’t figure out whether I could maintain my airfare if I canceled my flight or even if I had to change the spelling of my name that got inserted with two letters reversed.
- When I decided to upgrade from Basic Economy to Main Cabin and spend the $50 round-trip premium in order to make a seat reservation, I found only middle seats available.
- Someone just told me that even when they made reservations, the airline moved their seat assignments and they had no recourse. Even when seats are reserved with a fee they are not guaranteed.
- I was also looking to try and get my family sitting together on the flight — my wife and two pre-teens — but there was no way to manage it online, nor any explanation about whether or not there would be a cost. I read a couple of years ago that Congress passed a law saying that I could sit with my family at no extra cost. How?
- Plus, I have read that the seat pitch, even for the major carriers like American, Delta, and United, has shrunk down to less than 30 inches. Why pay extra when there is no extra space even for the additional $50 round-trip payment?
Needless to say, DOT needs to take a closer look at the transparency of airline pricing and the complicated system of airfare rules. It is impossible, absolutely impossible, for any consumer to understand what they are buying when they purchase airfare today.
There are two ways that any company can make their pricing deceptive and misleading. One is to simply advertise false advertising (as in the case of hotel resort fees where room rates advertised without mandatory hotel fees are false). Second, the pricing can be made so complex that comparison shopping and figuring out the true price is extraordinarily difficult. Both systems are effective and both are currently considered legal by the federal government powers that be.
The government is no longer protecting hotel and airline consumers from misleading and deception adverting. The Federal Trade Commission and DOT have spent the last decade justifying why large corporations should be allowed to mislead consumers. And, when about 70 percent of Americans that fly only fly once a year, they can not be expected to be experts on airline pricing intricacies.
The airlines are not only misleading us when it comes to the total cost of travel, thereby squeezing passengers financially, but passengers are being physically squeezed in smaller airline seats that are packed closer together than ever. And here, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been put on notice by Congress to review their actions. Still, just as with the Families Sitting Together legislation, the personal space on aircraft legislation has not resulted in any action by the FAA.
Finally, Congress is calling DOT and the FAA on their inaction and they are demanding studies and ways to eliminate both the financial and physical squeeze when it comes to protecting consumers who fly.
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. He also served on the Consumer Advocacy Subcommittee of the Transportation Security Advisory Board.