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Crunch time for air travel consumers

Tribune Content Agency logoTribune Content Agency 2/7/2020 By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency
a man standing in front of a building: Airline travelers at the United Airlines terminal at O’Hare International Airport. © Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TN Airline travelers at the United Airlines terminal at O’Hare International Airport.

Over the next few weeks, congressional negotiations on the final version of the FAA Reauthorization legislation will determine the outcome of some critically important consumer issues. The House version passed several months ago, and the focus now is on the Senate.

1. Anti-Consumer Issues

The House bill and the current Senate version both contain two items that are strongly anti-consumer:

-- One provision tells the Department of Transportation that it shouldn't ban airfare ads and postings that omit taxes and fees because they're "deceptive." In effect, this allows DOT to overturn the current rule requiring all-up air travel costs to be posted from the get-go, including base fares, taxes and fees. This was a major victory for consumers, and its reversal would benefit nobody other than airlines wishing to deceive you about the true cost of their tickets. Sadly, even legislators normally on the good side of consumer issues bought in -- or more likely, were lobbied in on the airline side.

-- Another, trickier provision would require big third-party online travel agencies and metasearch systems to display information about extra fees and schedule changes. Although that sounds pro-consumer, the airlines' hidden agenda is to disable competitive fare searches. They lobbied language requiring third-party sources to provide detailed information on fares, fees and charges, but do not provide the necessary information to third parties. And, in some cases, they would hold third-party metasearch systems, such as Google and TripAdvisor, responsible for providing follow-up services and even financial compensation on contracts to which they are not party. The independent online agencies and search systems believe this is an attempt to take them out of the air travel marketplace and make airfare searches a lot harder for consumers.

Make no mistake: Both provisions are in the bill strictly because of heavy-handed airline lobbying: Neither has any offsetting public benefit whatsoever.

2. The Fee Thicket

The current Senate version contains a mixed bag on fees. It prohibits airlines from assessing "unreasonable" ticket change fees and directs DOT to set fees for other services at levels that reflect the airlines' actual costs of providing those services. This is a mixed bag because some of the fees in question have nothing to do with actual costs but instead are designed to modify market behavior. Change fees, for example, have nothing to do with the trivial cost of changing reservation records and everything to do with making sure that very few business travelers buy cheap tickets -- and that's good for consumers.

This fee hassle is one of the many instances over the years where airlines ignore known consumer pain points too long and then complain when consumers turn to government for relief. Even though consumers benefit from fees that bar businesses from using the cheapest fares, those fees occasionally give consumers a huge financial hit while they're already coping with stress. The airlines could easily solve the problem on their own, but instead they've continued to stonewall consumers' legitimate problems. Then, when frustrated consumers ask Congress for relief, the airlines whine about re-regulation. Feh.

3. Seat Standards

Both House and Senate versions include provisions that DOT should consider minimum standards for airplane seat width and legroom. The primary motivation here is safety, not comfort: whether today's tight seating allows travelers to exit a survivable crash quickly enough to avoid fire and smoke injury or death. My take is that this issue warrants far more study. No matter the outcome of this bill, however, you won't see any real changes for years.

4. Other Stuff

Other provisions of the bill are relatively benign or innocuous, at least from a consumer prospective.

5. What to Do

If you're pro-consumer, be sure to let your senator know your views on this bill, especially the two provisions that would (1) kill all-up fare displays and (2) make honest and accurate airfare searches more difficult or even impossible. Beyond those two, decide for yourself about how you view the fees and seating issues.

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