The following was written by Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports.
Remember the last time you booked an airline flight and felt confident that you’d found exactly what you wanted, at a fair price, with no hidden extras? Exactly. Neither can we.
The sad truth is that buying an airline ticket these days is all too frequently a deeply unsatisfying consumer experience, rife with hidden gotchas, surprise fees, and frustration.
Technology isn’t necessarily helping, either. On the contrary, slick websites and intuitive user interfaces merely mask the reality—that today’s consumers often have to struggle harder and dig deeper to determine the true cost of flying.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, a bill is currently working its way through Congress—and could be voted on as early as this week—that includes provisions that would bring more transparency and fairness to the way airlines charge fees.
Fees, of course, are at the center of all this. U.S. airlines began “unbundling” their fares around 2007, and fees have been steadily multiplying ever since. This has meant that passengers pay a bewildering array of new and higher fees for supposedly “ancillary” services that used to be considered the basic rights of a ticket holder, such as checking baggage, selecting seats, changing flight reservations, and even carrying on a small bag.
Adding insult to injury, this brazen nickel-and-diming has happened even as the average seat size has shrunk, cabin occupancy has reached all-time highs, and customer service has deteriorated in demonstrable and often shocking ways.
But perhaps even more problematic is that the airline fee spree has made it extremely difficult for consumers to confidently compare airfares, even with the help of online comparison tools. How, after all, can you find the best fare when the add-on fees are confusing, inconsistent across airlines, and hard to pin down?
This state of affairs has been abetted by a laissez-faire Department of Transportation, and administration, intent on rolling back and blocking regulations designed to provide consumers with more fare and fee transparency.
Meanwhile, the bad news about fees keeps coming. In late August, JetBlue and United announced that they were increasing their checked-bag fees from $25 to $30 for the first bag, from $35 to $40 for the second, and from $100 to $150 each for third and additional bags. Other airlines are likely to follow suit. (Editor’s note: Delta did just that earlier this week.)
It’s increasingly apparent that the size of many fees is largely unrelated to the actual cost of delivering the service in question. This was made evident last year when airline executives testifying at a congressional hearing were unable to answer a simple question about the cost to their airlines of changing a passenger’s ticket to another flight. (For the record, American, Delta, and United currently charge passengers $200 to change a domestic flight and $200 to $750 to change an international one.) Given that disconnect, it’s hard not to conclude that the avalanche of fees is merely a tactic to frustrate the efforts of comparison shoppers and upsell passengers who were initially attracted by a low advertised price.
And that tactic is working: A recent industry report found that the 10 airlines with the most “ancillary” revenue—that is, from sources other than the sale of tickets—collected $29.7 billion of it in 2017, more than 14 times the $2.1 billion collected in 2007. Domestic air carriers collected $4.6 billion in baggage fees alone in 2017, according to the DOT.
In the coming weeks, Congress has a choice to make.
It could pass stronger consumer protections and make real improvements in airline ticketing practices as part of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, which is currently moving through the Senate. In particular, provisions in this bill would require all ancillary fees to be disclosed up front, regardless of how the ticket is purchased. And they would require airlines to align certain key service fees—like the amount charged for changing flights—with the actual cost of providing the service.
Or Congress could take a major step backward. A version of the same bill passed the House in April with an airline industry-backed provision—the perversely misnamed Transparent Airfares Act—that would roll back existing transparency guidelines, actually allowing airlines to stop including mandatory taxes and fees in the advertised price of a ticket.
CR has been fighting for years to bring clarity and transparency to airline pricing. And as we roll out our What the Fee?! campaign, which is aimed at fees across the marketplace, we know that shopping for airline tickets remains a particularly confusing and frustrating process for consumers.
We urge Congress to enact better consumer protections and reject any efforts to roll back existing ones.