Consumer Groups Irate Over House Passage of Airline-Backed Bill

by Michele McDonald

The House of Representative’s passage of the controversial Transparent Airfares Act of 2014 draw an angry response from consumer groups strongly opposed to the measure.

The legislation would overturn the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) full-fare advertising rule.

Termed a “cynically named bill” by the New York Times, H.R. 4156 now goes to the Senate for its consideration.

The DOT rule requires airlines to display or advertise the full amount customers are required to pay, including any government-imposed taxes and fees and mandatory airline-imposed fees.

Airlines’ support
Airlines For America, the industry trade group, applauded passage of the bill.

The airlines had pushed for the legislation, saying consumers have a right to know what they are paying in government taxes and fees.

“Today's vote is welcome news for airline customers who deserve to know how much of their advertised ticket price is due to rapidly increasing federal taxes,” Nicholas E. Calio, president and CEO said.

Calio said consumers are subject to up to 17 aviation taxes and fees, including the newly doubled Transportation Security Administration Passenger Security Fee.

Fierce opposition
But opponents of the bill note that nothing in the DOT rule prohibits airlines from breaking out the taxes and fees – and several airlines already do – as long as the full fare is displayed first.

Consumers Union said the legislation “was rushed through the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this year with no hearings, no public debate and no calls for comments.”

The organization “strongly opposes this legislation and urges the Senate to block any similar legislative effort,” William J. McGee, aviation and transportation consultant to Consumers Union, said.

Pushback expected
Syndicated columnist and consumer advocate Ed Perkins said he expects “more effective pushback” in the Senate, where several groups are working to bring key Senators up to speed on the issue.

“Let’s hope that the lack of effective opposition in the House was due to ignorance, not campaign contributions,” Perkins said.

Among the groups lobbying the Senate is ASTA, whose president and CEO Zane Kirby issued a statement saying, “On behalf of the traveling public, ASTA will now redouble efforts in the Senate to fight this deceptive legislation through continued mobilization of our members, nearly 700 of whom have already written or called their legislators in opposition.”

Returning to the ‘bad old days’?
Airline analyst and consultant Robert W. Mann said the House bill should be called the “Airfare Obfuscation Act.”

It is “a return to the bad old days of one-way, asterisk-ridden, lead price (taxes, fees, restrictions in mice type) ads,” he said.

Before the DOT rule went into effect, airline websites displayed extremely low fares – in one case, less than $300 roundtrip for transatlantic travel – in large type and the full amount – about $700 – displayed in much smaller type. Those fares often included fuel or international surcharges of hundreds of dollars.

And while a low base price may draw in more shoppers, the tactic could backfire, producing “fewer actual bookers once they see how and to what extent they've been played,” Mann said.

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