The definition of an airline ticket is changing, and it will continue to change.
What is it you’re paying for exactly, asks consumer advocate Christopher Elliot. Transportation? A seat?
Today’s tickets are stripped of the basics, including food, drinks, reservations, checked (or carry-on in some cases) luggage and the ability to change an itinerary.
Airlines have raked in $2.8 billion in the last year alone by changing the definition of a ticket. While nickel-and-diming its customers, carriers continue to make the outrageous claim that fares have never been lower.
Fliers rightfully feel duped, saying that once you factor in all the fees, flying costs more than expected. A USA Today survey found that 55 percent of polled air travelers say it costs “somewhat more” and 44 percent say it costs “a lot” more.
So what should a ticket include?
The airline industry is pushing to separate even more fees from its tickets with the proposed Airline Transparency Bill of 2014, which would allow them to advertise a ticket price that doesn’t include taxes and mandatory fees.
Although airlines have managed to turn the average ticket into a virtual abomination that no air traveler from a generation ago could understand, omitting the taxes to further market unbelievable bargains is taking it too far, and the government seems to agree.
The Department of Transportation proposed a rule that would define an airline ticket to include two checked bags, one carry-on item and advance seat selection. It would also require all ticket agents and airlines to display these basics at the point which fares are being compared.
Passengers say the fare word-games have gone too far, according to a USA Today survey. When asked to rank the most important components of an airline ticket, 94 percent said they wanted the advertised fare to include all taxes and mandatory fees, followed by the ability to reserve a seat (91 percent), the ability to carry a bag (90 percent) and the access to a bathroom (87 percent).
If airlines want to separate seating option and baggage fees from the cost of a fare, then they should develop technology that allows passengers to choose amenities for comparison. This would allow airfares to be compared apples to apples. Instead, customers are constantly being tricked.
With today’s system, it’s not easy to distinguish what is – and isn’t – included in the price of a ticket without an extensive amount of homework. Peeling away essential features of a ticket only benefit investors and industry apologists, not the consumers who keep the industry afloat.
Christopher Elliot’s Guide to Keeping Airlines Honest:
- Book a ticket from an airline that doesn’t aggressively “unbundle” its fares. For example, JetBlue and Southwest still include checked bags in their ticket prices.
- Let the Transportation Department know what you think of its proposed new airfare rules. Click on regulations.gov and search for rulemaking DOT-OST-2014-0056.
- Tell airlines what you think of their nickel-and-diming. By simply paying the fee and remaining quiet, you are tacitly endorsing these fees.
The Department of Transportation proposed a new rule Wednesday that would force airlines to disclose fees for services such as checked bags and advance seat assignments at the point of sale, rather than later in the traveling process.
The new consumer protection rule comes as the airlines are trying to accomplish the opposite with the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014, which would give them federal permission to lie about the actual price of fares, making them appear lower only to add on a slew of additional fees later. A Change.org petition denouncing the act has garnered almost 64,000 signatures.
As it is, fees are not always clearly stated when buying a ticket, and fees simply listed on the Web site leaves travelers unable to understand the total cost of a ticket before buying it, according to the DOT. Airlines made $27.1 billion in ancillary fees in 2012.
“Knowledge is power, and our latest proposal helps ensure consumers have clear and accurate information when choosing among air transportation options,” says transportation secretary Anthony Foxx.
The rules would apply to all tickets, regardless if booked online, in person, on the phone or with a travel agent. It’s the third of its kind, with rules in 2009 and 2011 that raised penalties for long tarmac delays and required airlines to announce full fares, including taxes, in advertisements.
“Passengers have lost their faith in the travel industry,” says Katrina Roberts, a travel agent at CookTravel.net who specializes in airfares to the South Pacific.
“On a Business Class flight to Sydney, taxes alone could cost $1,000 per person. If I didn’t disclose a fare including the taxes to my clients up front, they wouldn’t trust me enough to handle their travel arrangements,” she says
The proposal would put an end to “unfair and deceptive” practices, says the DOT. But, just as the airlines fought the rules in years past, they will continue to fight this one, despite the benefits it will provide to its customers.
A statement from Airlines for America says the proposal “overreaches and limits how free markets work.”
And it’s no secret why the airlines are upset. Over the next year, the proposal is set to cost them $5.1 million and $24.7 million over the next decade.
“The proposal we’re offering today will strengthen the consumer protections we have previously enacted and raise the bar for airlines and tickets agents when it comes to treating travelers fairly,” Foxx said.
The DOT also wants to extend the rule to cover third-party flight search Web sites like Kayak and Google’s Flight Search. The department will collect public comment for 90 days before implementing the rule.
USA Today rounded up the other goals the rule hopes to accomplish:
- Expand the airlines that much report information to the DOT about how many times the flights are late, how many times they oversell flights, and how many times they mishandle bags.
- Require travel agencies to adopt minimum customer-service standards, such as responding promptly to customer complaints and holding reservations for 24 hours without payment.
- Require airlines and ticket agents to disclose the airlines actually providing flights, under code-share arrangements, on initial itinerary displays on their Web sites.
- Prohibit travel agents from ranking flights of certain carriers above others without disclosing the bias in any presentation of carrier schedules, fares, rules or availability.
When purchasing a flight for a trip you have to take, cheaper non-refundable airfares are the way to go.
But, what happens if you cancel or change your flight due to unforeseen circumstances? Airlines require that you pay a hefty fee, but there are some loopholes and workarounds, says Airfare Watchdog founder George Hobica.
The United States Department of Transportation requires that, as long as you’ve booked a non-refundable ticket seven days ahead of your flight, you’re entitled to hold your reservation and the fare and change or cancel your reservation within 24 hours of booking without paying a cancellation fee (typically $200 on large carriers and up to $450 for international flights).
This means you get a 24-hour window after booking to either change the reservation or cancel it entirely. A change in the reservation could require the passenger to pay the difference in fares, but a change penalty will not apply. This applies to any airline selling tickets in the U.S.
To best take advantage of the 24-hour rule, book directly with the airlines, either online or by phone, instead of third-party Web sites.
Watch out for certain caveats with specific airlines:
American Airlines allows you hold your seat and the fares for 24 hours without paying for it. When considering booking a flight with American, do NOT pay for the fare and choose the 24-hour hold option instead. If you pay, you will be hit with a change/cancellation fee. American also sells fare “add-ons” starting at $68, which allow you to change your flight for free at any time, board first or check in a bag round-trip.
Southwest Airlines goes beyond the DOT regulation and allows you to change or cancel a reservation any time before flight time and get a credit for the full amount of your fare, which can be applied to future travel within a year of the original reservation. You’ll still have to pay the applicable fare increase.
Alaska Airlines now lets you change or cancel your flight for free within 60 days of departure.
Allegiant Airlines, notorious for nickel-and-diming its customers, is a bit more specific. Its rules state that you may cancel as long as your scheduled flight is at least 168 hours (seven days) away at time of booking.
Beware: the 24-hour rule is a little hazy when it comes to frequent flyer tickets. Most airlines oblige, but US Airways clearly states that the rule doesn’t apply to its mileage tickets.
Other Ways to Get a Refund:
Most of the traveling public is unaware of Rule 260 in airline contracts of carriage about “involuntary refunds,” which states that if the airline refuses to carry you for any reason, or if your flight is delayed more than a specific amount of time (like 121 minutes on American Airlines), or if your flight is canceled, you can apply for a full refund – even on a non-refundable ticket. For example, here is the rule for Hawaiian Airlines and United Airlines.
So, if you buy a fare you no longer can use and the DOT 24-hour rule doesn’t apply, you can avoid the change/cancel fee if your flight is canceled or severely delayed. It may not be worth your time to even show up to the airport, but you do need to check in for the flight for the rule to apply.
The Schedule Change Loophole:
You can get a refund if there’s a significant schedule change before your departure (for instance, a 9 a.m. departure is pushed to 6 a.m. the next day), or your new flight requires a much longer layover or overnight stay from a nonstop to a connecting flight. For example, here is American Airlines’ policy.
The airline may not notify you of a qualifying schedule change, so if you’ve purchased a non-refundable fare that you would like to refund, be sure the check the flight schedule to see if it has changed in any way. If it has, call the airline and request a refund, explaining that the schedule no longer works for you. Obviously, a change of just a few minutes won’t qualify for a refund.
And There’s Always Dying
In the past, if you had a verifiable illness or accident, with something as irrefutable as an emergency room admission, an airline would take pity on you and change or cancel your reservation without penalty. This doesn’t usually pan out these days, as too many people faked medical emergencies. So, now airlines will only issue a refund if you or a traveling companion on the same reservation dies — and only on presentation of the death certificate.