Transparent Pricing: An Endangered Species

For years, travel agents, online travel sites, and travel management companies have given leisure and business travelers the ability to quickly and easily comparison shop across hundreds of airlines with a single phone call or mouse click.  Corporate travel departments could easily plan and account for their employees’ travel.  It’s been a valuable system – one that has helped travelers build their travel itineraries at competitive prices.

But that system is severely endangered.  Services that were once included in the price of airfare – items such as checked baggage, seating options and priority boarding – have been “unbundled” at many airlines. Much of the fee information for these services is not available for easy and effective comparison shopping; being found only on airline websites, presented mostly in ranges, and not updated for months at a time.  And the only reason they are available even this much is that the U.S. Department of Transportation has required it.

There’s a simple way to fix the problem, however: airlines should make their complete fare and ancillary fee information available through every distribution channel in which they choose to participate, whether it’s through travel agents, travel websites such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, or on the airlines’ own websites.  Consumers could then see, compare and buy their all-in (fares+taxes+fees) airline tickets, and businesses could far better budget and track their spending on travel.

The Transportation Department is currently considering new traveler protections that would require airlines to share this information, and plans to make a formal proposal this November. Consumer groups, corporate travel managers, associations representing business travelers, travel agents, and even some airlines support greater transparency and “transactability,” i.e., the ability to purchase unbundled services, as well as base fares, from any outlet that sells air travel (and 50% or more of air travelers buy their tickets from independent outlets).

It’s simple: when consumers can make apples-to-apples comparisons among hundreds of airlines on an all-in basis, then competition increases and everyone, including airlines, wins.