EXPOSED! American's Deceptive Prices

The Department of Transportation's (DOT) new airfare advertising rules, which took effect last week, added some much-needed transparency to the airfare booking process. Now, the price you see on an airline's website is the price you're going to pay. It's a big win for consumers (despite what Spirit says).

But the rules haven't fixed everything.

Booking a flight online can still be a murky process—especially if your airline of choice is pulling the ol' bait and switch. American appears to be doing just that by enticing travelers with low departure fares and then walloping them with return fares that are sometimes more than 10 times as expensive as the cost of the first leg.

Here's how it works: When checking fares for an overseas trip, we punched in dates for a round-trip flight from New York to London, and opted to view the available fares by price and schedule. The deal of the century materialized!

A $65 one-way flight from New York to London, including taxes and fees? Yes, please.

But when we clicked through to purchase the second leg of the flight, as you can see, the return fare was 10-times higher:

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The total flight cost came in at $699, including taxes and fees. It's not a terrible price for a flight from the U.S. to Europe in March. But it's certainly not the deal of the century. And no combination of travel dates will yield a $65 fare (or anything nearly as low) for both the return and departure flights. That $65 ticket is only available with a round-trip purchase that includes a return flight 10-times more expensive. We checked fares for a one-way flight on the same day, March 14, and they're much higher, too. (The lowest one-way price we spotted for departure on the same day came to $1,003.)

What's going on here? Ed Martelle, an American spokesperson, offered this explanation in an email: "The fare imbalance is a result of our now listing round-trip fares as the sum of two (or more) legs. So yes, there will be a difference in fares based on what's available on any given day. In the case you mentioned, likely we had matched a fare sale on the outbound leg of travel—and it was available—but no similar fare was available on the return leg. It's all a function of competition, customer demand, and available fares."

We're skeptical. No other major U.S. airline breaks up fares in this way. Most carriers, including United, US Airways, Delta, and Continental, display the full round-trip price throughout the booking process.

We conducted a series of searches for international fares from U.S. cities on AA.com, and every query turned up return fares that were exponentially more expensive than departure fares for the same trip. We noticed these kinds of fares on the American website well before the DOT's rules kicked in, so we have no reason to believe this is related to the new airfare advertising regulations. This method of breaking up round-trip flights into two disproportionate tickets appears to be a ploy to hook flyers—and get them to book—with that initial marked-down price.

Peter Thornton, a fare analyst with our sister site, Airfarewatchdog, has also written about American's unblanced prices on Airfarewatchblog. Thornton told us, "I haven't noticed this on other airlines' websites, but it seems to be a trick, because obviously the cost is much higher on the return flight and they don't sell it at the low price for a one-way flight, either. I'm guessing the DOT might try to crack down on them for this type of advertising."

We hope so. What do you think? Should the DOT do something about this misleading practice? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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