Shopping for airline seats has become one of the most challenging buying experiences a consumer faces, a challenge ironically made more — not less — difficult as technology improves.
The good news is that in recent years the U.S. Department of Transportation has taken baby steps to protect consumers, and had been considering rules to provide more transparency. The terrible news is that on Dec. 7, that same DOT suddenly and without warning shut down all public comments on airline fare and “ancillary fee” transparency and abruptly ended all discussion. In a brief statement the DOT withdrew two separate proposed rulemakings that addressed pricing transparency, asserting they are “of limited public benefit” and “unnecessary” and “would require airlines to incur significant costs to implement.”
The fact is, when we shop for flights we do need guidance and protection from the DOT to navigate the airlines’ pricing practices. If the industry has its way — and the government that represents all of us allows it — then obtaining the full price of your flight prior to booking will become all but impossible. And make no mistake: The less consumers are able to effectively comparison shop, the higher airfares and fees will soar.
When opaque is ‘transparent’
On behalf of Consumers Union, I expressed disappointment publicly and stated, “We strongly disagree that these proposed rules are ‘of limited public benefit’ or would cause airlines to incur significant costs. In fact, enhanced pricing transparency benefits both consumers and competition within the airline industry.”
Other consumer organizations similarly weighed in.
• National Consumers League: “The Big Three airlines just got an early Christmas present from the DOT and airline passengers got scrooged.”
• Travelers United: “In the crosshairs of discussion is the airline industry’s continued effort to obscure the total cost of flying.”
• FlyersRights.org: “Airlines are already exempt from all state and local consumer protection, much antitrust law, most other federal regulations and tort law. The DOT is their sole regulator. If the DOT refuses to correct abuses or enforce existing regulations, and repeals existing regulations, airlines will be the first U.S. industry to have stripped the public of all economic protections from unfair predatory practices.”
Conversely, the airline industry, both individually and collectively, responded with comments critical of numerous consumer protections the DOT has implemented or sought to implement. The industry also vigorously supported the Transparent Airfares Act, Orwellian legislation that makes airline pricing less transparent.
There’s no question all this nickel-and-diming and playing peek-a-boo with fees is aggravating passengers. Two years ago Consumer Reports conducted an extensive survey of more than 20,000 fliers and found: “The airlines are viewed as either heroes or goats when it comes to disclosing their fees to their coach passengers. There is no in-between.” Meanwhile, a closer look at airline and travel sites reveals just how elusive the bottom line cost of flying can be.
How ticket sellers stack up
I’ve detailed below how leading U.S. airlines and travel sites compare when it comes to imposing and revealing the ancillary fees added to base airfares and mandatory taxes and surcharges.
Think fees don’t add up? Consider the following: A family flying on a domestic itinerary prices four round-trip, economy-class tickets on three different airlines and finds the same base fare of $300, then each passenger checks just one bag at the airport. That will generate a $1,200 price tag on Southwest, with no additional cost for baggage. But it will cost $1,400 on American (including $25 each way for each of the four checked bags). And it will total $1,600 on Spirit (which charges $50 per passenger, per leg for checking one bag at the airport on certain routes). As for comparison shopping among these carriers? That’s no easy task, even for veteran travelers.
Here’s a breakdown.
• Southwest: Best in some — but not all — ways
When it comes to “optional” fees, one U.S. airline stands far above all others. Southwest famously doesn’t charge for first and second checked and carry-on bags (the only major domestic carrier that doesn’t), nor does it impose ticket change and cancellation fees. What’s more, its “Optional Travel Charges” page is clear and easy to understand, though it does require you add up ancillary fees separately.
But there’s a downside to Southwest’s booking policies, despite its excellent pricing transparency. The airline’s distribution strategy is based on driving consumers directly to Southwest’s own website and the company has notoriously opted out of many third-party sites and booking channels, making comparison shopping extremely difficult. In fact, if all carriers emulated Southwest, comparison shopping airfares would all but disappear.
• The Big Three's opaqueness
If you’re booking via the branded websites of one of the nation’s Big Three — American, Delta or United — don’t look for functionality that allows you to shop for airfares while simultaneously pricing fees for checked baggage and other “options.” In fact, the process to determine your bottom line costs can be quite cumbersome.
American: None of the Big Three allows you to easily price checked bags on the initial flight search tool. But at least American provides a detailed chart of its fees for services such as checked baggage, and the rates are consistent within the U.S.: On domestic flights, it’s $25 for first checked bags, $35 for seconds.
Delta: Like American, Delta only allows you to price checked bags separately, though its “Common Baggage Fees” listings are extensive but clear (on domestic flights, the rates are the same as American’s).
United: The United online “Baggage Calculator” offers very little transparency and makes comparing prices quite difficult. In order to determine the cost of checked baggage, you’re first required to either insert the specifics of “My Flight(s)” or use the “Any Flights” tool that requires specifics (origin and destination airports and travel dates).
• The ultra-low-cost carriers paradox
The nation’s three “ultra-low-cost carriers” have developed a reputation for both the lowest fares and extensive nickel-and-diming for everything from carry-on bags to printing your boarding pass at home. But when it comes to obtaining checked baggage fees online, the results are mixed. What’s more, as shown in the example above, the ULCC’s fees can be much higher, easily offsetting any savings on base fares.
Spirit: To its credit, the airline’s website makes it clear you’ll pay extra for — well, just about everything. That’s the good news. But Spirit’s “Bag-O-Tron” feature requires you insert origin and destination airports, as well as round-trip flight dates, to find specific prices on a per-flight basis; this unwieldy algorithm makes comparison shopping time-consuming and bothersome.
Allegiant: Allegiant Air at least provides a detailed and lengthy Baggage Fee Table. But those fees vary by a very long list of possible flight itineraries.
Frontier: Among domestic ULCCs, only Frontier clearly provides a uniform list of baggage fees, which of course need to be calculated separately from fares.
• Online travel agencies: Stuck in the middle?
Third-party online travel agencies (OTAs) — such as Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity and others — are beholden to the airlines for the fee information they provide to shoppers. For example, Expedia offers a “flight details and baggage fees” link on its search function for United flights, and the pop-up states: “Estimated baggage fees charged by United (please confirm with airline).” Inevitably, travelers are forced to continue clicking over to the airlines’ websites — consuming more time and effort — to confirm such fees, which pleases the airlines since they want you visiting their own branded sites.
Travel Tech, a consortium of travel technology companies, filed comments with the DOT and noted “decreased competition leads to higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.” Travel Tech stated: “The issue in this proceeding, contrary to the views of certain airlines, is not requiring airlines to do business with those with which they do not wish to do business, but rather whether airlines can lawfully impose restraints on the re-distribution of basic airline fare data, which is not protected under U.S. copyright law.”
As long as the DOT doesn’t require airlines to provide all flight, fare and fee information to third-party ticket sellers, you can be sure it won’t happen.
What can you do?
• As best you can, always shop around. Yes, that’s become harder recently. But you’ll never get the best deals every time if you only visit the same airline or travel site without comparing.
• When it comes to added fees, assume nothing! Fine print can be confusing (such as airlines failing to note that listed baggage fees are one-way, not round-trip). If you’re uncertain, query the airline via its website or social media accounts.
• Many fees can be waived in certain cases, such as on international itineraries, by upgrading to premium classes, by obtaining frequent-flier program elite status, etc.
• A reliable travel agent may be able to assist with both obtaining fee information and waiving fees; check with the American Society of Travel Agents to find one.
• If you’re bothered by the booking process, consider filing a complaint — not with the government, but against the government. Here’s the contact info. Also, consider notifying the DOT Inspector General.
• If you feel airlines have overstepped by imposing fees that are disproportional to the costs incurred, you can support the FAIR Fees Act — Forbid Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous Fees Act of 2017.
Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an email at email@example.com. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.