Air Travel Fairness aims for greater airline fare/fee transparency to ensure true consumer cost comparison

In light of the DOT’s recent decision not to pursue regulations that would result in greater airline pricing transparency for consumers, ExpertFlyer went One-on-One with Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director of the Air Travel Fairness Coalition, to learn what his organization is doing to protect consumer travelers.

“Airlines are making record profits and we don’t begrudge that. In fact, we’re happy they are successful, but let’s get it all out in the open (fares and fees) so everybody knows what they’re getting into.”

WATCH our interview with Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director, Air Travel Fairness Coalition

ExpertFlyer: What is the Air Travel Fairness Coalition?

Kurt Ebenhoch: Air Travel Fairness is a coalition of consumer and business advocacy groups that are working together to protect the rights of consumers to easily compare airfares and schedules among airlines. Currently, we’re seeing an increasing effort by the airlines to block consumers from seeing the full set of varying fares and schedules, and flights, available to them from some of their favorite resources, including travel apps and websites. As a result, we’re working to try and protect that right because comparison shopping is the way that we all assess whether or not we’re getting a good deal.

EF: The Department of Transportation recently decided not to pursue some regulation that would have meant greater pricing transparency across the airline industry. What does this mean for consumers? 

KE: There are two issues here. One is how early in the transaction the consumer has the complete picture of what the cost of their trip will be. Over time, the airlines have added new fees, new charges for different things, and trying to figure out that bottom line of what one’s total cost is has gotten a lot tougher. So this was something that was going to require a summary of the total cost earlier in the process. And it had been studied over many, many years. There was lots of consumer input.

Then the second provision was one where the carriers would have to report to the government how much money they’re making on all these different ancillary fees and charges. And what really concerns us is, we’re seeing a pattern here from the DOT, where it feels to us like, airline profits are their most important objective and we think that consumers should really be their most important priority. They need to put consumers pocketbooks ahead of airline profits.

These different things that they’re doing, whether it’s what I mentioned before with making it hard for consumers to compare fares and schedules, or with what’s happened with the DOT, are all examples of behind the scenes price increases or deception that make it more difficult for consumers to find out the bottom line cost of their trip. And they’re doing it for no other reason than to extract more money from the consumer.

Our point of view is if the airlines want to charge a certain fare, this is a free market economy, they should charge that fare, but let’s get it all out in the open so everybody knows what they’re getting into. Rather than deception, and hide and seek with these varied charges and fees.

EF: So what’s the next step for your coalition?

KE: Well, right now we’re very much trying to get what’s called a Request for Information reinstated. Sometimes when it comes to policy making, one of the early steps is for a government agency, such as the Department of Transportation, which is charged with protecting American consumers, to initiate a request for information where they get different facts and data from different parties in the travel environment. From that information, they’re able to make a more informed choice about the impact these practices are having on consumers.

The Air Fairness Coalition had a Request for Information in place. It generated more than 58,000 comments, including 50,000 from individual travelers who just wrote to the DOT expressing their concern related to this. It initially had a deadline of December 31 of 2016. That deadline was extended by the Obama administration to March 31, 2017, at the request of the airlines and then on March 10th, inexplicably, the Trump administration suspended the RFI altogether. We have been working with members of Congress and with the DOT to get that RFI reinstated. What’s curious to us is that the airline industry is working very, very hard to try and stop the reinstatement of that. And we’re not talking about legislation or a new rule, we’re just talking about getting the facts out on the table and letting things go from there.

But even in that case, they’re working aggressively to stop that from happening. We think it’s important for everyone involved, all the decision makers, the policymakers, to really see what’s going on and what impact these practices are having. Consumers should be able to decide which website they go to, which app they use, which travel resource they use. It’s not for the airlines to decide that. And now that the top four carriers have more than 80% of the market, we’re starting to see some oligopolistic practices.


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