If one were to listen to airline executives giving speeches across the country, the only conclusion would be that the airline industry is the most perfectly transparent industry in the U.S.A. when it comes to pricing — it is a comparison-shopping nirvana. Airline passengers, on the other hand, say airline pricing has become so complicated that figuring out comparative air travel costs requires a spreadsheet. Applying for a mortgage may be easier and more straightforward.
Why is there such a disconnect? Why do the leaders and executives of airlines claim they are bending over backwards to disclose airfares and fees while passengers feel that digging out extra fees is next to impossible?
I believe this difference in what airline executives believe they are clearly explaining and what passengers are hearing comes about because airline executives don’t buy airline tickets and they never compare prices across airlines. They never jump through the same shopping and purchasing hoops that a passenger must in order to purchase airline travel.
Plus, they may not be aware that fees have proliferated to such a degree that they are humanly impossible to calculate, let alone compare across airlines.
Once upon a time (before 2008), purchasing airline tickets was a simple and straightforward process. Passengers could call the airlines, go online or visit a travel agent and get a price for a flight that included the reservation, a seat, a couple of bags and sometimes a bite or two. Not any more.
It is true that airfares are fairly easy to discover using the Web, travel agents or airline reservation centers. Passengers can easily see the airfare between two cities. But, airfare is only the tip of the iceberg. Unlike the pre-2008 days, airfare does not include anything more than the right to walk onto the aircraft and be transported. Checked baggage, telephone reservation service, seat reservations, meals, pillows and blankets, and in some cases even carry on baggage, have all been “unbundled” from what was once airfare.
Today there are legions of fees for services with exponential options and exceptions. A husband and wife flying on either of America’s largest airlines face a matrix with 64 different variations of baggage fees (the most basic of fees). This complex matrix includes factors such as what credit card was used to purchase each ticket, when the baggage fees are paid, are both travelers listed on the same record locator and are both passengers elite frequent flyer members of the airline in question or an affiliated airline.
This 64-choice matrix is only for baggage fees for a couple purchasing a simple domestic flight. Add in two children with their parents, perhaps on a separate reservation, and mathematician friends of mine calculate checked-baggage fee variations could reach 4,096 permutations based on airline booking options and exceptions.
After baggage fees, passengers are faced with seat reservations. Once a simple process of choosing a seat, the seat reservation map has been complicated with more exclusions, exceptions and variable seat definitions. Some seats are first-class, business and coach, then choice seats, aisle seats and window seats, front-of-the-plane seats and extra-legroom seats. Each of these seats may be available to various passengers based on the credit card used for airfare purchase, elite levels in frequent flier programs and reservation codes.
Not all airlines allow passengers to choose seats, and thus, passengers do not know how much various seats cost until they fill out TSA questions (name, date of birth, etc.) and then poke around the seating chart on an airline website to check various charges. A family traveling together faces a daunting task to find four seats together that do not have a premium charge on many airlines.
Multiplying only three different seat options for a family of four with the 4,000+ baggage fee options brings the options faced by them to more than 50,000 different possibilities — that’s on only one airline. Imagine comparing two or three airlines for the best overall travel cost and value.
Now, imagine that this family has been shopping for airline tickets through an online travel agency. They cannot even find the specific baggage and seat charges nor can they pay for these fees. Families are forced to spend more time checking airline-to-airline for thousands of combinations of baggage and seat reservation fees.
Airlines claim that they are offering choice. That is true. However, by not disclosing these fees to ticket agents that provide open platforms on which the flying public can compare the total cost of flying, including baggage and seat reservation fees across airlines, they make finding the total cost of flying complex, at best, and they make effective comparison shopping impossible.
America’s airline passengers, both leisure and business, have been without the ability to effectively compare the cost of travel across airlines for almost half a decade. It is time that DOT requires airlines to disclose the full cost of travel so that those costs can be compared across airlines and purchased wherever the airlines choose to sell their tickets.
The public deserves to know the full cost of air travel, have the ability to compare total costs and pay for their basic airfare and fees wherever an individual airline chooses to sell its tickets. That’s how the free market should work. That’s not too much to ask for.
Open Allies for Airfare Transparency is a coalition of individuals, companies, and organizations that believes that all airline airfares and fees should be transparent and salable to the traveling public. Our members include more than 380 of the world’s leading travel management companies, corporate travel departments, consumer groups and travel agencies. www.faretransparency.org
By: Charlie Leocha, Director, Consumer Travel Alliance
We leave you with video from the Open Allies for Airfare Transparency website.
Cartoon airliner courtesy vectorine – Fotolia.com