They’ve redefined an airline ticket – it’s time to fix that

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By Christopher Elliott

OK, here’s an easy question: What’s an airline ticket?

“What do we get?” asks HJ Pluhar, a retired manager from Alpharetta, Ga. “Is it transportation? Is it a seat? What does a ticket buy?”

That’s not so easy, on second thought.

The definition of an airfare is changing. Airlines routinely strip today’s tickets of the basics, including checked luggage, food, drinks, reservations, the ability to make itinerary changes, and even the ability to bring a carry-on bag.

The battle over ticket transparency

By quietly rewriting what’s in a ticket, airlines have been able to legally rake in billions — a record $2.8 billion in ticket change fees last year alone — helping propel most of the industry to a profit. At the same time, air carriers can make the outrageous claim that their fares have never been lower, which is probably true if you accept their narrow definition of “ticket.”

But air travelers feel duped. In a recent poll, a vast majority of air travelers said once you factor in all the fees, flying costs more than they expected, with 55 percent saying it costs “somewhat” more and 44 percent complaining that it costs “a lot” more than they thought it would.

So perhaps a better question is, what should a ticket look like?

The airline industry is pushing to separate even more fees from its tickets, backing a proposed law in Congress called the Airfare Transparency Bill of 2014. It would allow them to advertise a ticket price, minus taxes and mandatory fees, making fares look like an unbelievable bargain.

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Consumer advocates say that’s the last straw. Airlines have managed to turn the average ticket into an abomination that no air traveler from a generation ago would recognize, but omitting the taxes is a step too far.

What travelers really want from ticket pricing

The government appears to agree. Under a proposed Transportation Department rulemaking released last Wednesday, regulators would effectively define a ticket to include two checked bags, one carry-on item, and advance seat selection. The proposed rule will compel all ticket agents and airlines to display these basics when comparing fares.

But how about air travelers? In the survey conducted on behalf of USA Today by the online polling company SurveyMonkey, passengers indicate that the fare word-games have gone too far as well. Asked to rank the most important components of an airline ticket, 94 percent said they wanted the advertised fare to include all taxes and mandatory fees. Passengers closely followed it with 91 percent desiring the ability to reserve a seat, 90 percent wanting the ability to carry a bag, and 87 percent seeking access to a bathroom.

Separating seating option and baggage fees isn’t necessarily a terrible idea, according to Carol Margolis, author of the book “Business Travel Success.” The problem is what airlines have done with their fares once they have unbundled them. Instead of quoting a low, and unbookable, rate, airlines should develop technology that allows passengers to choose the amenities they want and then compare the same type of fares between carriers.

Unbundling airfare fees for informed travel choices

“That would allow airfares to be compared apples to apples,” she says.

The reality is far different, she adds. Her mother and aunts recently flew on Spirit Airlines and were “so nickel-and-dimed by fees that I’m sure they’ll never fly Spirit again.” Had their booking system included a menu system, they would have known what to expect.

“Customers are constantly being tricked,” agrees Steve Rushing, a Washington attorney. He’s also unhappy with Spirit Airlines, where customers, lured by its cheap fares, may not be aware that their standard carry-on bag may cost up to $100. (The 2014 Transparent Airfares Act, once unlikely to pass, now appears likely to become law, potentially altering how airlines display ticket prices by overturning the full-fare advertising rule)

“I’ve known people who’ve showed up at the airport lacking a seat assignment, only to be charged additional fees,” he says. “The seat wasn’t included in the base price they paid.”

Spirit knows its passengers sometimes feel surprised by its fees, and as part of a brand overhaul recently pledged to clarify its policies before passengers arrive at the airport.

Telling customers what they mean by “ticket” would certainly be a good start. Today, you can’t easily determine what is — and isn’t — included in your fare unless you do a lot of homework. Peeling away essential features of a ticket may win high marks from investors and industry apologists, but passengers hate it. That should be enough for the Transportation Department to step in and put an end to this nonsense. (Here’s how to survive a long flight in economy class.)

If only they would.

How to keep airlines honest about their tickets

✓ Book a ticket from an airline that doesn’t aggressively “unbundle” its fares. For example, JetBlue and Southwest still include checked bags in their ticket prices.

✓ Let the Transportation Department know what you think of its proposed new airfare rules. Go to Regulations.gov and search for rulemaking DOT-OST-2014-0056.

✓ Tell airlines what you think of their nickel and diming. By simply paying the fee and remaining quiet, you are quietly endorsing these fees.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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