Airlines are common carriers. They should follow the rules of price disclosure.
Common carrier airfares should follow rules that have been established over centuries. Those rules include public pricing.
Any consumer who has spent time on a bus, taxicab, commercial airplane, passenger train, or cruise ship, has been on a common carrier. In the United States, a common carrier (or simply “carrier”) is an entity whose business transports people or goods from one place to another for a fee and that must comply with governmental requirements. Here are the basic three requirements for common carriers:
- Public pricing: When it comes to prices charged by common carriers, those tariffs must be public.
- Duty of Care: Carriers may be held liable for the injuries of passengers, but only if the plaintiff can prove negligence.
- No discrimination: Common carriers must serve the general public without discrimination.
Since 2008, airlines have been parsing the common carrier rules in terms of public pricing of travel costs. And, the Department of Transportation has been allowing them to get away with their interpretation of airfare.
Airlines claim that airfares do not include carrying baggage, eating food, getting seat reservations, checking in at the airport, speaking with a reservationist, using a credit card, and (I know this is hard to believe) full fuel costs.
According to the airlines and the currently accepted DOT practice, if the service can be separated from the cost of actually flying, then it does not have to be made public. It can be considered an optional service. Balderdash! Before the airlines unbundled their “airfares,” common carriers were required to post their costs prominently beside the door of their place of business. Optional or not, the prices charged should be public.
Today, airlines only publicly provide airfares stripped of baggage, reservations, credit card charges, check-in process, food, Internet service, entertainment, and early boarding. The rest is shrouded within the airlines’ own website, not made public to travel agents, who book more travel than the airlines themselves.
This refusal to release full airfares and all ancillary fees together with exceptions make it impossible for consumers to effectively comparison shop for airfares.
- Passengers do not get the complete prices when only airfares are revealed. All airlines do not have the same extra charges.
- Passengers cannot comparison shop across airlines unless they manually check prices from airline site to airline site, which many times change during the research process.
The pricing process is complicated again by a series of exceptions to their fees based on the elite level of frequent flier program membership and with what credit card airline travel is purchased. These complex rules affect more than only the purchasers’ pricing; they affect up to eight other passengers for everything from free first-checked bags to seat reservations and from charges for speaking with telephone agents and early boarding permissions.
Advertise the full fare, including all mandatory taxes and fees
When airlines, cruise lines, buses, and trains compete, all should follow the same full-fare advertising rules that should require each mode of travel to advertise the full fare, including all mandatory taxes and fees.
All prices should be public, available for effective comparison shopping wherever needed.
Airlines, as common carriers, should not be permitted to restrict distribution of public airfares and ancillary fees. This practice makes it difficult to comparison shop for airfares.
Delta Air Lines is alone in this practice. They are forbidding some websites from publishing public airfares, even when they are legally obtained. This means that websites like Hipmunk, TripAdvisor, SkyScanner, Travelzoo, Cheapair and others cannot display Delta airfares.
At Hipmunk.com, Delta flights can be seen, but the prices are not revealed. This makes comparison shopping impossible for consumers. Delta’s decisions about which websites it will allow to display airfares is seemingly random. However, any restriction of airfares makes comparison shopping very difficult, limits competition, and is not transparent for its customers.
No airline should be allowed to restrict the distribution of its airfares or its ancillary fees. These should be public information.
Airlines can pick and choose their sales agents, but not whether or not to limit publication of pricing.
While common carrier pricing of airfares and ancillary fees is public, airlines can pick and choose which businesses they want to sell their tickets. Travelers United accepts that Delta can do business with whatever agent they choose, but they cannot restrict the publication of their public common-carrier airfares and fees.
Even Southwest Airlines, that famously advertises all tickets must be purchased from southwest.com, advertises on many online travel agency websites with ads that direct consumers to their website and airfares.
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.