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Senate Committee Calls Out Airlines on Fees

If you’re fed up with the airlines’ fee-for-all, you’re not alone. The widespread frustration with the proliferation of confusing and onerous fees hasn’t been lost on members of Congress, who tend to be frequent flyers themselves.

On Thursday, the Democratic members of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation issued a report questioning the fees’ fairness and the airlines’ commitment to clearly disclosing them. (The full report (.pdf file) is here.)

The report’s title says it all: “The Unfriendly Skies: Consumer Confusion Over Airline Fees.” The report’s findings were neatly summarized by Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the Committee’s top Democrat: “The traveling public is being nickel-and-dimed to death. What’s worse is that many flyers don’t learn about the actual cost of their travel until it’s too late.”

The report notes that ancillary fees have increased 1,400 percent since 2007, reaching $38.1 billion in 2014. And it acknowledges and accepts that fees will continue to be integral to the airlines’ pricing strategy going forward. “Ancillary fees are now a key component of major airlines’ business models, and revenue from these fees could continue to expand in the future.”

So, with the cat out of the bag, and expected to remain so, how does the Committee propose to address the fee-related anger and confusion among consumers? The report’s overarching conclusion provides context:

In the last five years, the ancillary fee model has become a central part of the revenue stream for major U.S. airlines. Unfortunately, this new system does not always result in fairness or transparency for the traveling public. This report shows the need for continued oversight by this Committee, the Department of Transportation, and consumer watchdog groups to ensure that airlines engage in fair and reasonable practices regarding ancillary fees and offer consumers transparent information regarding all possible fees when purchasing airfare.

Among the Committee’s specific recommendations:

  • Better and earlier disclosure of ancillary fees to help consumers compare costs among airlines
  • Require checked baggage and carry-on baggage fees to have a clear connection between the costs incurred by the airline and the baggage fees charged
  • Require airlines to promptly refund fees for any bags that are delayed more than six hours on a domestic flight
  • Limit airline change fees to a reasonable amount tied to lead time prior to departure and an amount less than the original fare
  • Mandate that airlines place clear disclosures that “preferred seat” charges are optional

In other words, fees should be sensible, not gouges; and they should be clearly communicated to consumers, early in the purchase process.

Fairness and transparency. Seems reasonable, right? Congress and travelers should expect nothing but push-back and obfuscation from the airlines, however. After all, if their idea of fairness and transparency wasn’t so radically divergent from the traveling public’s, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Reader Reality Check

When it comes to fees, do you find the airlines to be fair and transparent?

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