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Department of Transportation: ‘More Protection, Not Less’

Apparently unfazed by the current congressional proposal to undo its earlier airline passenger protection rules, the Department of Transportation (DOT) proposed a set of new, additional consumer protections. The most important deals with fees: DOT proposes that airlines and ticket sellers be required to disclose fees for four “basic airline services” at all points of sale: one checked bag, a second checked bag, a carry-on bag, and an advance seat assignment. DOT certainly knows that these specific fees are truly optional: You can fly without checking a bag, taking a carry-on bag, or getting your seat in advance. But the apparent idea is that these options are so widely used that consumers should be notified of their costs throughout the search and purchase processes.

Additional proposals in the DOT announcement—all sensible and probably less controversial—would:

  • Require large travel agencies to adopt minimum customer service standards, as are now required of airlines, covering such factors as timely response to complaints and a 24-hour no-fee “hold” on ticket purchases more than one week before departure.
  • Require airlines and ticket agents to disclose codesharing arrangements on initial displays.
  • Require any biases in preferential display treatment.
  • Extend performance reporting to smaller airlines—most notably Spirit.
  • Clarify the definition of “ticket agent” as it applies in other regulations.

The key proposed rule—the one on fee disclosure—is long on general requirements and short on specifics. Exactly what does DOT intend when it says to disclose at “all points” of the sale? Does it mean that each individual fare should display and include these fees from the initial display onward? So far, we have no clear answer, but presumably we will find out in coming weeks.

The biggest concern is how the new proposal would impact online fare/schedule searches. An ideal search process for most of you is easy to describe:

  • To start a search, you would enter exactly what you want for a trip: for example, a round-trip ticket from Chelm, Poland, to Kampen, Germany, on specific dates or date ranges, with one checked bag and an advance seat assignment.
  • Presumably, such an ideal search engine would allow you to specify these and other options such as an onboard snack, a drink, a low change fee, or a seat with extra legroom.
  • Then, the search engine would return the total cost for the fare plus selected options for all feasible flights, on all airlines, adjusting as necessary for the airlines’ differing fee policies and prices.

Individual airline search systems could easily accommodate this sort of information. They could even automatically compensate for travelers with special status in the airline’s frequent-flyer level, a credit card that provides for “free” checked baggage, and such other individual details as might affect the final price, as stored in the line’s database. The challenge would be greater for third-party online travel agencies such as Expedia and search engines such as TripAdvisor, but not impossible.

Through their trade association, Airlines for America (A4A), and their lobbyists, the big airlines are already fighting the current levels of consumer protection, so they will obviously hate the new proposal. You can expect some heavy flak. You can also expect broad support from the same several consumer groups that are leading the fight against the misbegotten “Transparent Airfares Act” now before Congress.

Given the airlines’ propensity to unbundle air service and add fees for everything, the proposed new rules would certainly make life easier for anyone trying to determine the best airfare for a given trip. My take is that the new proposed rules will live or die not in the principles but instead in the implementation. And so far we haven’t heard much about that.

Rest assured, however, that other consumer advocates and I will keep close attention to the new proposal as it evolves. Meanwhile, if you want to register your opinion, the DOT docket will be open to receive comments until August 18. Log onto

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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