“The lack of disclosure has me feeling a bit duped”

sf2When Reese Alutto booked a flight from an American Airlines ticket counter a few days ago, she expected the price she was quoted would be the price she paid.

But a few days later, she noticed an unexpected $30 charge from the airline on her credit card. There was no explanation. What kind of games was American playing?

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Alutto emailed me for help. I wondered: Did she book by phone? Did anyone warn her about the extra fee? Was AA testing a new fee at that airport?

The answers in a moment.

Here are the details of Alutto’s fee encounter:

I missed a flight from San Francisco to Washington this past Friday — the Friday after Thanksgiving.

I immediately looked at a travel site on my Blackberry, and learned that the only remaining flight that would get me from San Francisco to DC that day was leaving in about an hour, in another terminal. Since getting to DC that day was a must, my fiance (who had resigned himself to being stranded overnight at SFO) quickly paid for WiFi, while I tried to reserve the flight on my laptop.

I was able to “hold” the flight, but not purchase it. After clicking through a confirmation email, I learned that I couldn’t purchase it anywhere but a ticket counter, because it was less than two hours before the flight. I rushed to the new terminal, arriving at the American Airlines counter less than an hour before the flight. The very helpful gate agent completed my purchase, printed my boarding pass, and rushing me through security. I was so thrilled with him that I planned to write to American Airlinse to thank them for saving my trip.

And then I got my credit card bill. There were three charges…one for the flight, one for some in-flight snacks, and another $30 charge that I couldn’t place. I went and looked at the receipts that I was provided at the ticket counter, and found two: one for my ticket, and one for an “Airport Service Fee.”

Since I didn’t check a bag, I have no idea what this fee was for. Was for the privilege of walking up to the counter to buy my ticket (which I was given no choice but to do)? Could it have been for use of the “priority rewards” security checkpoint? I have no idea. I know it isn’t a huge fee — and if I had been told at the ticket counter that it was necessary to get me on that plane, I surely would have paid it. But the lack of disclosure has me feeling a bit duped.

I contacted American Airlines and asked about the “Airport Service Fee.” Its answer?

There is a fee for booking with an agent at the airport. This should have been explained to the customer, but it sounds as though it wasn’t.

I would encourage the customer to write in the Customer Relations.

She did. Here’s American Airlines’ reply:

We understand your objection to the service charge that applies to tickets issued through our reservations offices and airport locations. These types of service charges are common in many industries and are becoming increasingly so in the airline business. We collect this service charge so that we can continue to offer full services and remain competitive.

We offer a no service charge alternative on AA.com. If, however, you prefer to rely on the more specialized services offered by our reservations and airport personnel, then we hope you will continue to find value in purchasing your tickets in that manner.

Thank you again for taking the time to comment on this issue. Your business is very much appreciated.

I have to confess that I’m as surprised as Alutto by this fee. I thought American charged for phone bookings, but not in person. Wrong.

What does she think of American’s answer?

I understand that there are fees for not booking online. My point was three-fold:

1) I attempted to book online, but was not permitted to do so, because the flight was less than two hours away.I simply received an email saying the tickets were being held, and was told to proceed to the ticket counter. So, I was given no choice but to buy my ticket that way.

2) While AA is certainly within its rights to charge a fee for purchasing at the counter (even if I have no choice), this should have been disclosed to me in the email confirming the tickets were being held. There apparently was no way that this $30 was NOT going to be charged: I couldn’t pay anywhere except at the ticket counter, and $30 is charged for tickets purchased at the ticket counter. As such, failing to disclose this fee to me in the confirmation email was a bit deceptive.

3) At the very least, I should have been told orally at the ticket counter. While I understand that the ticket agent was rushing me through my purchase (for which I am thankful), and he did provide me with a receipt, I had every reason to believe that I would only be charged the $418 that was listed as the one-way ticket price (including taxes and fees), in the confirmation email I had received only 15 minutes earlier.

These are all perfectly valid points. American should refund her $30. And incidents like these should encourage Senators to vote for the Clear Airfares Act of 2009, which would require airlines to disclose all fees and taxes up-front.

(Photo: riacale/Flickr Creative Commons)

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