Why travelers need transparency now

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If the words “price transparency” don’t make your eyes glaze over, then you’re probably one of the hundreds of thousands of travelers who feel ripped off by a low price.

Maybe you’re infuriated by promises of price transparency because, well, prices aren’t that transparent, particularly when you’re booking an airline ticket.

The latest air travel survey by TripAdvisor.com found 71% of travelers are annoyed by baggage fees and seat selection fees, which used to be included in their fare. Another study by the Chief Marketing Officer Council found that almost two in five travelers were stressed out by the process of researching and finding deals.

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Guess what? You’re not the only one who is annoyed and stressed out. Three U.S. senators recently urged the Department of Transportation to require more disclosure. But what they mean by “transparency” may not be exactly the same thing you mean, and even if these legislators prevail, we’re still a long way from knowing exactly what travel will cost.

Here’s what you mean by transparency: The price you see is the price you pay.

“Transparency to me means that I know the cost of a trip before I click to accept the flight or approve a charge to my credit card,” says Dianne Zeitler, a retired health care consultant and frequent traveler.

But what if you want to make an apples-to-apples comparison — say, deciding between a Spirit Airlines ticket, which charges you for carry-on luggage, and a Delta Air Lines fare, which allows a carry-on item at no additional charge? There’s no fast, practical way to do that, short of spending time online with a calculator and a notepad.

There should be, says Angela Berardino, who works for a tourism marketing organization in Denver. It’s a problem she’s run into when she’s looking for the lowest fare online.

“Low-cost carriers like Frontier routinely dominate the search, but net costs are often the same or higher at the end of booking,” she notes.

Indeed, says Wendy Patrick, a consumer expert who lectures at San Diego State University, “Travelers are looking for price transparency easily, not through the tedious and time-consuming task of visiting individual airline websites.”

Of course, airlines would rather you not compare them. That’s the problem.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have asked the administration to clarify existing regulations and compel airlines to make the comparison process easier. They note that some airlines appear to be “taking steps to restrict consumer access” to fare and schedule information. For example, Delta Air Lines prohibits certain third-party price comparison travel websites from fully accessing the airline’s flight data, blocking the information from being viewed in a comparison environment.

“We believe such practices are damaging to consumers and potentially violate our existing consumer protection laws that promote competition in the air transportation industry,” they note.

Efforts to regulate airlines are unnecessary, say airlines. “It would be difficult to find an industry that is more transparent than airlines in their pricing,” says Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for A4A, an airline trade group. “In fact, all pricing information is readily available to travelers at the click of a button.”

Forcing air carriers to supply their fares to every booking site would be a step too far. “Airlines have the right to sell their product where they choose,” adds Medina.

But that “right” comes at a cost. A study conducted last year by a Yale University scientist on behalf of the Travel Technology Association, a trade association that represents online travel agencies, concluded that restricting access to flight fare and schedule information costs American travelers an additional $6.7 billion annually. The organization had urged the senators to pressure the government into action.

Steve Shur, the Travel Technology Association’s president, says there’s a public interest in making this information available and ensuring airfares are truly transparent.

“This is especially important given the rapid consolidation in the U.S. airline market over the past 10 years, with four carriers now controlling over 85 percent of domestic air capacity,” he says. In other words, market forces can’t force airlines to share the information.

The online travel industry’s motives aren’t entirely altruistic. Although having the fare information would no doubt help travelers, it would also be a windfall to online agencies, who could sell more products to their customers and better compete with airline sites.

But no matter how you define transparency, there’s one thing we can probably agree on: There’s still not enough of it. Maybe the government can help by enforcing laws already on the books.

Whose definition of "transparency" is correct?

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Where to find transparency

Travel agency sites.
Online agencies such as Travelocity offer price quotes that include taxes and other mandatory fees, in accordance with federal regulations. They also disclose any optional fees that you may assume are included. But you still have to book carefully.

Airline sites.
Although you can’t comparison shop on an airline site, some airlines like JetBlue and Spirit Airlines get high marks for disclosing any additional fees you may need to pay.

A real travel agent.
A qualified human travel agent can help you quickly cut through the clutter. Although you may have to pay a booking fee, it may more than offset the savings from knowing exactly how much your ticket will cost. Find a good agent at the American Society of Travel Agents site.

26 thoughts on “Why travelers need transparency now

  1. One additional point regarding transparency: the answer isn’t always simple.

    Think of the question: “what’s the fare from New York to Chicago with one checked bag?” The answer for Delta will be “it depends,” based on whether you have status and whether you have a Delta credit card.

    I prefer having the third party sites tell me what the base fare is (including all required taxes and fees, naturally), and let me check deeper if I need add-on services (i.e. seat assignment or premium seats, checked baggage, etc.).

    If, say, Kayak had to show fares including one checked bag and a seat assignment, that would actually make it HARDER for me to search, since it includes fees for things that I don’t buy (checked bags), and fees that are waived for me on some airlines (i.e. seat assignments).

    1. Exactly!!! There are just too many variables involved. What fare class, credit card used, refundable, status, etc. changes the metric. It is not a one price fits all situation! Also consider the connection times as often a longer connection is more BUT it may be a safer connection

    2. One of the problems is that after you check deeper, the airline you believe is cheaper could increase ancillary fees AFTER you buy your ticket. They can’t do this for checked bags anymore, per recent DOT rules, but they can still generally do this for other ancillary fees which are not prepaid.

      Third party sites like Kayak can’t include the price of a checked bag and a seat assignment even if they wanted to because these ancillary fees are not published to the distribution systems they use to quote fares.

      If all ancillary fees were published, then Kayak et. al,. could allow you to maintain a profile with all your affinity and status benefits and quote you accurate apples-to-apples pricing. The DOT has proposed a rule mandating the publishing of ancillary fees to all distribution systems, but the carriers oppose this of course. They don’t want you to easily compare apples-to-apples prices.

      1. Don’t those airlines though and all airlines have a fixed fee for checked bags? It’s not a tariff, its $X for a bag, and if you have something like status or CC that waives the fee, I would think the PAX would no that? I never understood what the problem with checked baggage fees was, it’s a fee based option, how is this not understood?

        1. The reputable airlines generally have a fixed fee, though even then there’s confusion with codeshares and different size/weight limits, and whether there is a free bag allowance on a particular route, etc.

          With LCCs, it could also depend on the season and the flight number and whether you prepay and whether you print the receipt yourself and what other ancillary purchases you’re making and anything else you can think of. And if you don’t check the bag, you have to pay a fee to carry it on, and that amount can also vary based on all kinds of variables.

  2. There is so little choice left in the airline industry that it is beginning to not matter. There is still a great deal of hotel choice but for how long? Complete monopoly in home TV/internet providers. They charge what, when and how they want and the consumer has to pay. I hate anything government controlled but we have gone way too far with ‘free market’.

  3. We need airlines that compete, not collude. Allowing all these mergers over the years did not help.

    Southwest is the only airline it seems concerned more about the customer than CEO compensation, and believing that providing a better business model and focusing on the customer can be successful.

    1. I don’t believe SW is any more concerned with PAX concerns, all the other airlines are just so much worse, that SW looks kind compared to them.

  4. I would rather go back to a ticket price that includes seat assignment as well as one checked bag per person. These days, as several people have already noted, there are too many variables to give an accurate price.

  5. The hiding of extra fees during the initial search clearly benefits the airlines that depend on fees for profitability. And, as others have just said, showing all in fares cannot work with the number of variables among airlines and potential passengers. Or maybe it could work

    Let there be a new search algorithm at an airline search site. Instead of putting in just dates and destinations, put in you number of bags, whether or not you want a window seat, your frequent flyer status(es), your airline credit card affiliations, and so forth. Then the site shows the relevant fares. If you are high status on one airline, the machine will not up the fare for your free checked bag, but it will for the airline that gives you no perks. Voila! Individualized transparency.

    Next on the agenda: Hell freezing over.

    1. The third party search engines would probably love to offer their customers that new transparent search algorithm. They generally make their money mostly on advertising and click-through micro-fees, and any new feature that increases clicks and traffic is music to their ears.

      The core problem is that there is no distribution system where the third party search engines can retrieve ancillary fees, and many of the fees are not locked in at the time of purchase anyway. And of course the carriers mostly prefer to keep things this way.

    2. My first thought was great idea! My second was “then Chris would get a rash of “I put in my status and was quoted a fare, but turns out my status expired 12 years ago and the fare wasn’t valid and I got quoted baggage fees but my bag was overweight so they charged me more and now I want a refund….” I shudder at the thought!

      1. Don’t forget that they didn’t get the seat they wanted, because the airline changed equipment and now their aisle seat is a middle seat.

  6. It is all doable with current technology no matter how many comments there are to the contrary. A standardized classification system for all parameters which are mandatory for all carriers is all that’s needed. They make it “complex” and incompatible for a reason, which is to confuse the consumer and make them more money.

    Regulations regarding ancillary fees could be put in place to state that once the ticket is sold, the ancillary fees can’t be increased for that ticket. It can all be done, it is just a matter of the will to do it.

  7. Unlike checked bag fees, for which the airlines incur some cost, seat assignment fees are simply a money grab. Once you’ve selected your class of seats, airlines that allow seat selection (ie not Southwest) can easily allow you to pick from within the set of seats you are permitted to use. So there is no reason for separately charging for seat assignment, other than simply padding profit.

    1. What’s wrong with making a money grab? Why leave money on the table, that’s how businesses works, they monetize products and services that customers will pay for. A business need not provide actual value, if consumers will pay for perceived value that’s a valid revenue stream.

  8. We need a “sticker price” law, like an MSRP, this is how much it costs to transport you and a personal item, including all taxes and mandatory fees.

    Where I disagree with most PAX advocates is the need of an assigned seat and any ‘free’ checked bags. I would rather save a few dollars taking a random seat and I do not want to subsidize checked bags of other PAX.

    1. Why do u think you’d end up subsidizing someone else’s checked bag? As it is, if you are traveling on a cheap ticket, those paying full fare or last minute fares, are helping to subsidize your ticket.

      1. Baggage doesn’t fly free, there’s a cost to handle it, track it, and of course cost to fly it. If airlines provided “free” checked bag in their fare price, it means that those without checked baggage who pay the same fare as those who check a bag, are subsidizing the baggage costs of those free bags being checked.

        1. You are right, baggage doesn’t fly free – checked and carry on adds more weight to the plane (cost to fly it). So, I guess you could say those carrying on bags are being subsidized by those who pay to check their bags or more probably so, all of us in our ticket prices. There is no free lunch these days.

          1. That’s a misconception, the cost of additional fuel to fly baggage is comparably minimal to the cost of baggage handlers, security screeners, and the systems used and needed to transfer, track, and sort baggage between the counter and the aircraft.
            Compared to carry on baggage, where the PAX is the logistics system that moves the bag from door to aircraft.

  9. We pay our taxes online, with little or no problems. We no longer have to go to the bank. We pay bills online and order just about anything online, without major problems for the majority.

    But when it comes to travel, woe to the person who makes an innocent mistake. The travel industry will take your money and deliver nothing.

    Regulation on this, and other issues, are needed. They can’t do it themselves.

    And don’t wait for Congress to help u. The big 4 carriers donated tens of millions a year to keep things the same. And there are those who think the industry is looking out for the consumer. Lol.

  10. U.S. senators ? They are the dodgiest people known to mankind. U.S. politicians … the best money can buy (& they are cheap)

  11. we fly to a beach within Australia for a week every December(middle of summer) Used to be 2 weeks but massive recession has started to bite here.
    Anyway, we now travel light & fly low cost, either Qantas low cost Jetstar or Virgin Australia low cost who now own Tiger Australia (all with very new aircraft btw) – so the legroom is minimal, So what.
    We don’t need to check a bag. (we take bikinis. budgee smugglers(speedos) in our carry on. If we need toiletries at our destination, we simply buy them there.
    We check in online, few days before departure & usually get to sit together. I would be happy for my teenagers to sit a long way away actually.
    I often buy a AUD$5 beer(USD$3.85) on board & usually have a choice of 4 or 5 different beers & often also buy a snack.
    The world has changed stop whinging about it (you’re starting to sound like Poms(English) who whinge about everything)
    Get with the programme (correct spelling)
    It Trump has taught you anything, it’s that most people are sick of the status quo.

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