How airlines plan to have their way with fare disclosure

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By Christopher Elliott

An unlikely midsummer battle over airline ticket advertising is taking place on the U.S. House of Representatives’ suspension calendar. But then, almost nothing about the oddly named Transparent Airfares Act, a bill championed by the domestic airline industry, has followed a likely trajectory.

The proposed law would allow airlines to quote a fare that excludes taxes and fees, revealing a grand total only immediately before your purchase. Consumer advocates strongly oppose the legislation, asserting that it would enable airlines to promote misleadingly low prices.

However, the legislative maneuvering that could ultimately result in the bill’s passage mainly puzzles them.

They argue that airlines and their congressional allies have, at each stage, circumvented parliamentary procedure to advance the Transparent Airfares Act. This maneuvering has progressed from committee approval to its expected inclusion on the suspension calendar in Congress, typically reserved for uncontroversial, bipartisan legislation. Although the outcome of this latest chapter is far from certain, it has raised questions about what the airline industry really wants, and what it means to you.

The controversy surrounding a proposed airline tax bill

If lawmakers add the bill to the suspension calendar, it will be just a motion or two away from becoming law. Subsequently, it could attach it to a broader, must-pass aviation reauthorization bill next year and approve it in the Senate to become law.

“This bill is anything but noncontroversial,” says Eben Peck, a spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents, which opposes the bill. “Taking it up on the suspension calendar is inappropriate.”

The airline industry disagrees, correctly noting that the bill has some bipartisan support. What’s more, its benefits are obvious, the industry claims.

Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, which represents domestic airlines, says, “With the latest government tax hike going into effect this month, 21 percent of the price of a typical airline ticket will consist of government-mandated taxes and fees.” “If the administration gets its way in its proposed budget, that percentage would soar even higher, to 26 percent.”

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The debate over transparency

The Transportation Department’s “full fare” advertising rule, which the new law would undo, requires airlines to “hide” taxes in the price of a ticket, she says. But if the bill passes, it would allow consumers to know how much they’re paying in taxes.

“It will help protect consumers from a government that looks to tax air travelers every time it needs revenue,” Day says.

Some passengers are skeptical. Carl Kaiser is a retired music professor from Grand Rapids, Mich. He says, “I believe the airlines are bound to be deceptive in whatever they do.” They’ve experienced too many airline fees and broken promises to believe that this bill will benefit them, and they sense that the airline industry has ulterior motives.

Consumer groups agree, noting that there’s nothing in the current regulations that stops an airline from disclosing taxes. “This bill is a disaster,” says Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. “It’s being railroaded through Congress, consumers be damned. ”

Advocates rally against controversial bill

An online petition sponsored by Travelers United through Change.org has collected more than 125,000 signatures. The petition urging Congress to stop efforts to “effectively legalize bait-and-switch airline pricing.” Trade groups representing travel agents and online travel agencies are also opposing the bill. (Full disclosure: I co-founded Travelers United but am no longer actively involved with the organization.)

“We believe consumers deserve transparent access to the all-in cost of airfare. It include taxes and fees, so they can make true comparisons between travel options,” he says.

High taxes and hidden agendas

It seems strange that a bill like this would be bulldozed through Congress without any meaningful debate. But advocates point to a trail of airline donations to the campaigns of key members of the House Transportation Committee as a possible reason for why it may be. Although that would be perfectly legal, cutting off debate on the law is wrong, says Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org. “Members who then seek to shut out public input for controversial anti-consumer legislation have crossed an ethical, if not a legal, line,” he says. (Here’s what you need to know before planning your next trip.)

The airline industry may indeed have a point about high taxes. But observers suspect that even if you removed government levies from the equation, airlines would still be pursuing this bill with the same determination.

They point to a clause deep within the bill that defines a base airfare as “the cost of passenger air transportation. It excludes government-imposed taxes and fees.” As written, the bill could allow an airline to define anything it wants to as a “fee.” Nothing would stop it from quoting a $1 fare with an asterisk.

Airlines push for tax clarity

In other words, airlines are asking for the right thing. They need to reveal their high tax burden for all the wrong reasons.

But airlines say that their cause is right and that their methods are justified. They’ve set up a Web site, airfaretransparency.com, to convince their customers that exposing taxes is the right way to rein them in.
Consumer groups have urged their constituents to directly contact their representatives. They also requested that they keep the bill off the calendar. You can find out more on their position at the Business Travel Coalition’s Web site, www.businesstravelcoalition.com .

As of Thursday, when this story closed, the Transparent Airfares Act wasn’t yet on the suspension calendar. The bill’s supporters have another week to pass the law before Congress goes into recess.

Should the Airfare Transparency Act be added to the suspension calendar?

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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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