Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, a group that is seeking full disclosure of airline fees, said that as millions of Americans take to the skies for the opening weekend of summer, families are encountering “unprecedented” hurdles to air travel that could be eased if airlines truly focused on customer needs and kept fees for seating, boarding and the like transparent through and purchasable from travel agents. Since most airlines fail to do so, the group said, whether it's fees for seating that make it hard for parents to sit with their children, or barring pre-boarding for families with small children, families are particularly susceptible.
“What makes the behavior of the airlines even more exasperating for families is the failure to provide airfares on an all-in (fares, taxes and fees) basis upfront," said Art Sackler, executive director of Open Allies for Airfare Transparency. "Because many airlines withhold that information, families can't figure out how much more it will cost them to sit together until after they purchase their basic tickets -- and that could be hundreds of dollars round trip.” Sackler also said it was very difficult for families to compare prices among airlines that have fees for seats or other add-ons.
By federal law, airlines are not supposed to engage in "unfair" or "deceptive" behavior. But Sackler said withholding fees is certainly unfair and may be deceptive. Such practices, he said, can result in surprised and unhappy consumers whose total trip costs turn out to be far steeper than envisioned, unexpectedly reducing budgets for destination activities. But when it impacts families with small children, the effects are more than just fair disclosure of prices.
Because airlines charge premium prices for "choice" or "preferred" seats, and reserve many for elite members of frequent-flyer programs, the usual methods of ensuring that families can sit together, such as a change at the gate or flight attendants asking customers onboard to change seats, no longer work. If a customer has paid $45 extra for a specific seat, that customer is unlikely to want to change to a less desirable seat to accommodate someone else, including young members of a family. According to Sackler, with upfront disclosure of services, pricing and availability, and one-stop shopping with a travel agency or other travel services provider, families and other consumers could largely avoid such onerous circumstances.
Airlines have refused for nearly half a decade to restore comparison-shopping for consumers in this new unbundled services era. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for consumer protection in air travel, and has taken important steps on disclosure. But Sackler said much more needs to be done to restore true comparison-shopping. The DOT is currently considering additional rules to ensure fees are transparent, up-to-date and purchasable through travel services providers with whom an airline chooses to do business. Sackler said it is essential that new rules advance to implementation on an expedited basis.