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Airlines don’t want you to know how much your ticket will really end up costing. For over two years, American carriers have been battling Barack Obama’s Department of Transportation (DOT), which is considering requiring airlines to disclose fee information to travel agent distribution systems and online ticketing agents like Orbitz.Some airlines previously sued the Obama administration over a rule requiring they disclose taxes as part of the cost of their flights, but they might hate the fee proposal even more. And their explanation for their position on fee non-disclosure is especially bizarre. The Associated Press explains [emphasis added]:
At the heart of the debate is a desire by airlines to move to a new marketing model in which customers don’t buy tickets based on price alone. Instead, following the well-worn path of other consumer companies, airlines want to mine personal data about customers in order to sell them tailored services. You like to sit on the aisle and to ski, so how would you like to fly to Aspen with an aisle seat and a movie, no extra baggage charge for your skis, and have a hotel room and a pair of lift tickets waiting for you, all for one price? You’re a frequent business traveller. How about priority boarding, extra legroom, Internet access and a rental car when you arrive?
It’s hard to see how this is a convincing argument for hiding the true costs of goods and services from your customers. Add-on and personally tailored services are well and good, but people should know how much they will be charged for them. And meanwhile, back on (or, if you will, above) Planet Earth, the shift in the airline industry over the past four decades has been towards more price sensitivity, not less.
Most people who fly want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly and cheaply as possible, and airlines have proven that most flyers are willing to give up comfort for price. They may not like the brave new world of commoditized airline travel, but they’re living in it. It’s hard to see why consumer- and business-travel groups (which almost uninamously oppose the airlines on this) should have to kowtow to the airlines’ dream of a return to less price-sensitive air travel and less comparison shopping. (It didn’t work out too well for Virgin America.)
It should be non-controversial that companies competing in a free market should not attempt to deceive consumers about what their products and services actually cost.
If previous Supreme Court precedent holds, the airlines are likely to lose their ongoing court fight over the inclusion of taxes in their prices. But in the meantime, the DOT has postponed its decision over fee disclosure once again. The issue was first raised in the summer of 2010. Decisions have been postponed from January 2012, to August, then to November, and now until May 2013. Let’s hope that this is the last delay. This has gone on long enough.
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