Congress Does Not Address Airline Fees in FAA Reauthorization Bill
February 8th, 2012

Adds Pressure, and Clears the Way, for DOT to Act Under Existing Authority

Since the beginning of the latest round of efforts in 2010 to update and “reauthorize,” i.e., renew congressional approval for, the Federal Aviation Administration and its programs, the Senate has included instructions in its version of the bill to the Department of Transportation about disclosing baggage, seating and other “ancillary” fees to consumers.   The House chose not to include such instructions in its version, and the final bill cleared for the President’s signature does not include them.

What does this mean for the Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) third passenger protection rulemaking which will, in part, focus on fees?  More importantly, what does it mean for air travelers trying to find the best price and availability options for their trips?

For DOT, there are differing, but ultimately complementary, implications.   On the one hand, the Department now becomes the only game in town for assuring that consumers – businesses or individuals – will be able to compare full, or “all-in,” prices (defined as fares+all fees+taxes) among airlines before they buy.  This adds noticeable pressure to both the substance and the timing of their decision.  How will they resolve the issue, and how long will consumers have to wait?   Based on current scheduling, any changes to improve disclosure that may be decided upon by DOT likely won’t take effect until Spring, 2013.  That seems too long for consumers to wait to be treated appropriately:  i.e., to assure fees are not hidden, but available and ready to purchase upfront.

On the other hand, the lack of specific instructions from Congress means that DOT is free to craft an effective solution that meets the existing legal mandate to protect consumers through fairness and nondeceptiveness.   The flexibility inherent in that free hand should enable the Department to ensure that consumers have meaningful opportunities to comparison shop and purchase the “all-in” price of a ticket.  In other words, DOT’s ability to create an effective solution would not risk being constricted by well-meaning, but inflexible, prescriptions in the legislation.

For consumers, the exclusive focus now will be, of course, the Department’s effort.   Reinforcing  how critical full transparency and transactability are, will be important.   But those points have been made extensively to the Department.    What seems most urgent now is finding a speedier path to resolution.   So, urging DOT to do whatever is in its power to move consumer protection III along faster seems a vital point for air travelers, and indeed the entire airline travel community, to communicate.

Otherwise, it will be another year or more before consumers experience broad improvement in their ability to compare and buy “all-in” airfares, another year or more of hidden fees, and another year or more of unpleasant surprises on the real cost of their airline tickets.

Art Sackler

Executive Director, Open Allies