The Senate recently passed the Federal Aviation Authorization Act, a massive piece of legislation that, among other things, gives funding for a new air traffic control system and mandates tarmac delay provisions. But tucked away in the bill is a set of new consumer protections that could drastically improve the airfare booking process: The Clear Airfares Act. Introduced by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, the Clear Airfares Act would require airlines and online travel agents to display taxes and fees—even bag fees—early on in the booking process, meaning you'll know the full price up front and won't get hit with surprise fees at the airport.
I chatted with the senator to find out what's in the bill, what sort of changes consumers can expect, and when the new rules might take effect.
Today in Travel: For our readers who are less familiar with the Clear Airfares Act, could you please explain what it contains?
Senator Menendez: We’ve all been frustrated when we search for an airline ticket and don’t get a clear breakdown of what goes into the airfare. And the frustration mounts when we get to the airport and find out that checking a bag will cost another $25. Particularly in these tough times when families are watching every penny, it ought to be simple for them to figure out what they’re expected to pay for before they pay. What we’re trying to do is make sure that, before they purchase a ticket, consumers will have easy access to a clear and full breakdown of the airfare and all the additional fees they might have to pay when they get to the airport.
TNT: Once these provisions are in effect, how will consumers’ airfare shopping experiences change?
M: What we envision is that when you see an airfare online, it will be accompanied by an easy-to-read, easy-to-understand, full breakdown of everything that goes into the airfare. For instance, this might include the base airfare, each specific surcharge, each specific tax, as well as fees for baggage, meals and pets that you may have to pay later. This way you can understand exactly why it might be costing you so much to travel on a “holiday surcharge” day or why you might be shelling out an extra $50 when you get to the airport. Exactly how this will look will be determined by the Department of Transportation, but this is the intent of the legislation.
TNT: How do you propose airlines and online travel agents account for optional charges, such as bag fees or in-flight meals?
M: It is the intent of my legislation that these fees that you might be charged when you get to the airport should be clearly displayed along with the full breakdown of the airfare. Fees for things like checked baggage amount to much more than pocket change, and knowing that will help consumers make the absolute best decisions for their budget.
TNT: What is the timeline for implementing these provisions?
M: Steadily, we’re nearing the day when clear airfares will be a reality. A major hurdle has been cleared, and now there are a couple of legislative steps remaining, followed by the Department of Transportation making rules to implement the law. Getting the legislation included in the FAA reauthorization bill was a major step forward. I am optimistic that we can keep it in the final version of the bill and that it will be signed into law this spring, at which time the Department of Transportation will work on implementation. One important thing to mention to your readers is that if you support the Clear Airfares Act, it might be a good idea to contact your member of Congress and urge them to support it as part of the FAA reauthorization bill.
TNT: The Clear Airfares Act seems to draw inspiration from the E.U.’s rules requiring advertised prices to include taxes and fees. Do you think the next step is to implement the same requirement here in the U.S., so that airfare sales will list prices with those extra charges included?
M: Right now, I’m focused on getting Clear Airfares passed, but I’m certainly open to other ideas that might help protect consumers. Any measures that help families get a clearer breakdown of their purchases and eliminate any hidden fees or surprises definitely deserve thorough consideration.
The full text of the bill is here. I'll keep track of its progress as the FAA bill makes its way to the President's desk, so stay tuned!