Tough talkin’ Transportation Department slaps United with $75,000 fine

unitedA few days ago, a Transportation Department official bristled when I suggested that its recent fines against airlines were little more than warning shots. It turns out the DOT isn’t done making its point.

In a consent order filed last week (PDF), the government fined United Airlines $75,000 for violating fare advertising requirements. And something tells it’s still getting warmed up.

What did United do?

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For a period of time, United advertised a number of fares on the “Special Deals” section of its website that did not contain appropriate notice of the amount or nature of additional taxes and fees that were excluded from the advertised fare at the first point in which the fares were displayed.

Nor did United provide clear and conspicuous notice that the fares advertised required a roundtrip purchase.

Instead, these fares were followed by a double asterisk that referred the reader to fine print below the group of advertised fares that stated “Each way fares based on required roundtrip purchase, plus taxes/fees.”

The Transportation Department contends that by failing to offer appropriate notice of the taxes and fees applicable to these fares and the roundtrip purchase requirement associated with the fares, United violated the law and engaged in “unfair or deceptive practice and unfair method of competition.”

As always, half of the fine will be forgiven if United doesn’t repeat this particular offense.

I think this is a good step, but I have a few questions. Most of them are rhetorical.

• In how many of the recent DOT consent orders did the agency act on its own to initiate an investigation? How many times were they tipped off by passengers?

• How is a double-asterisk fare promotion any different than a “base” fare that’s stripped of taxes, airport fees and luggage fees? Aren’t passengers deceived in both cases?

• If the DOT doesn’t have the authority to regulate airfares, then what is it doing telling United how to quote its fares? And if it does, indeed, have the authority to tell United to drop the asterisks, why can’t it do more?