Pending Legislation Would Gut Airfare Transparency

For the great majority of today’s travelers, price trumps considerations of frequent-flyer miles. As it should. But price-shopping flights depends on consumers’ ability to compare all-in prices.

As things stand today, it is considered “an unfair or deceptive practice” to fail to disclose the full price of air transportation, including any and all government-imposed taxes and fees, in ads or other marketing communications and online booking apps.

In other words, no fair advertising a low-ball base fare, when the final price, with all fees added in, is actually much higher. It’s called airfare transparency, and its express purpose is to allow travel consumers to make apples-to-apples comparisons when shopping for flights.

Airlines have opposed the rule since its imposition, in 2012, calling it intrusive government regulation. Consumer advocates, including this writer, strongly support the rule, characterizing it as a sensible consumer protection.

In a big win for the airlines and a setback for travel consumers, the rule may be undermined by legislation currently being voted on by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Included among the 622 sections of H.R. 2997, the FAA reauthorization bill known as the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act, is a provision (Sec. 505, near the bottom) that would amend the airfare transparency rule to allow the advertising of base fares, provided that taxes and fees are disclosed “through a link or pop-up … in a manner that is easily accessible and viewable by the consumer.”

Anything short of displaying the all-in price of tickets up front is not airfare transparency; it’s airfare opacity. It’s a return to the bad old pre-2012 days, when much airfare advertising was deceptive, full of nasty surprises when the final “Pay This Amount” price bore little relation to the advertised base price.

Because the new rule has been hidden deep within an enormously complicated and wide-ranging reauthorization bill, it’s received little in the way of attention or debate.

Travel consumers should be prepared for a nasty surprise, wrapped in a nasty surprise.

Reader Reality Check

Is it unreasonable to expect airfare transparency from airlines and travel agents?

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and almost that long writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

This article first appeared on SmarterTravel.com, where Tim is Editor-at-Large.

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