Transparency is a good thing. The Department of Transportation's 2012 rule mandating airfares be displayed complete with all surcharges, taxes and government fees was a great idea. And never mind the recent congressional saber-rattling to roll it back; this should continue. It saves us from ads touting unreal deals like a $400 flight to Europe that doesn't include the $450 fuel surcharge and $170 in taxes.
Now the DOT wants to go further. It's proposing the air travel industry reveal specific prices for bag fees and such at "potentially" every step of a consumer's airfare shopping/purchasing experience. Or as the Feds put it broadly, "at all points of a sale."
I want travelers to know exactly what (if any) fees they may pay will cost them, but the way this rule might be implemented is problematic. Here are a few reasons why this is not the Beltway's best idea.
Fees are optional: I'm all in favor of the requirement that displayed airfares include taxes and fees, because these charges are mandatory. But bag fees are optional. Pay the fees or not, and you'll still get a seat on the plane. The key is that shoppers get a clear accounting of all possible fees before purchasing – specifically before dinging their credit cards and possibly during the printing or downloading of boarding passes – because this is when they are actually paying attention.
Small screens: More and more people shop with smartphones. Imagine a comparison airline ticket quote that returns thousands of priced itineraries, then having to scroll down through all those extra inches per itinerary loaded with every conceivable bag fee option. Extra inches? More like extra feet, because bag fees are not one-price-fits-all.
How about letting the market dictate how optional airline extras are displayed on comparison quote pages? If consumers like the fancy way one site displays add-ons, they will demand it from all sites, or they will quit using them. But the proposed new rule shouldn't dictate how comparison shopping sites do or don't display optional items.
Price complications: A bag can cost one price if purchased separately and another if purchased as part of a bundle of services. Then there are overweight baggage fees, oversize charges, carry-on charges and on and on. Now, say a trip involves three different airlines, each with its own set of fees. How will these optional fees be conveyed to educate the consumer?
How will the new DOT rule-making handle a United Nations-style clearing house required to accurately gather this constantly changing sushi menu of information from more than 600 commercial airlines worldwide so comparison shopping sites can access and deliver it to consumers in milliseconds? Is it even logistically possible? Another thought: Many foreign carriers may refuse to comply and may gain an advantage in doing so.
Yes, let's keep full disclosure for the price of a seat – your basic airline ticket. And when it comes to fees, by all means, let those costs be displayed clearly and specifically before purchase. But there is no real need to show these costs at every step of the shopping process, as has been suggested.
There are a lot of details in this proposed rule change that we still don't know about, and yes, the devil is in the details. Let's flesh it all out before the Supreme Court has to, or before the DOT levies fines based on vague rule requirements. Consumers win with transparency. Consumers lose with well-intentioned rule-making without a thorough vetting of the potential and unintended consequences. The DOT is offering you a chance to weigh in on this here.
By the way, since the Beltway is so hot to champion air travel consumers, maybe they'd like to help out with the plethora of other industries with optional fees that aren’t disclosed during the quoting and purchasing process. A few suggestions:
1. Sporting events, theaters and concert venues: Optional $20 beers, $15 hot dogs and $12 sodas.
2. Hotels: Optional $25 a day Wi-Fi charges, $25 a day gym memberships.
I'm sure you can think of others.
Rick Seaney is an airline travel expert and the co-founder of FareCompare.com, an airfare comparison shopping site