Republished with permission from Tom Belden
Travel-cost transparency Why it should be the issue of the decade for travel journalists
By Tom Belden
As a professional print journalist for more than 40 years, the concepts of balance, fairness and objectivity are stamped on my brain and embedded in my soul. Give both sides of any controversial issue the opportunity to be aired in your writing, I was taught by my earliest mentors. That was the standard I followed for more than three decades in covering the travel business as a reporter, columnist and blogger at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
But today I am unchaining myself from that straitjacket when it comes to what I see as the single most important issue facing anyone who seeks to provide intelligent news coverage of the travel business, and particularly air travel. I am referring to airfare transparency, in the form of helping people who fly for business or pleasure (and who also stay in hotels and rent cars) know what the bottom-line cost for an airline trip will be before they hand over a credit-card number to secure a reservation. I hope other journalists will join me in what needs to be a crusade on behalf of the traveling public for clear rules on disclosing costs.
In late November, I became an early signer of a petition to the White House, asking that the Obama administration direct the Department of Transportation to complete a consumer-protection rulemaking procedure to restore true airline comparison shopping, whether you buy from online travel sites, traditional travel agents or the airlines own Web sites. Heres a link to the petition on the Business Travel Coalition Web site: http://www.businesstravelcoalition.com/whitehouse.html. Read it and give the topic some thought, but if theres a logical reason to not sign it and oppose adoption of a strong version of this rule, I am at a loss to know what it is.
Anyone who has shopped for air travel in recent years, and particularly industry professionals such as agents and corporate travel managers, understands the problem that needs federal watchdog attention. When searching for an airline ticket using an online agency such as Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity, or an airlines own site, the fare for a roundtrip or a one-way flight is usually prominently displayed. Within the last year, airlines have been required to also include in the full cost all taxes and government-imposed fees a requirement that the industry opposed, as it usually does whenever a consumer-protection issue arises. Airlines also now include fuel surcharges in fare quotations.
The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of airlines worldwide today have fallen in love with ancillary revenue, in the form of fees for a wide variety of services or products that as recently as four or five years ago were included in fares. Many carriers apparently cannot make a profit anymore without this revenue, so fees are here to stay. The list of what now costs extra is long and familiar to travelers. It includes checked and occasionally even carry-on bags, reserving particular seats, where and how a ticket is bought, making any change to a ticket after purchase, food and drink and the use of pillows and blankets. What you will wind up actually paying for everything an airline has provided simply cannot be calculated until a trip is over and a passenger has exited a destination airport in possession of his luggage.
Trying to puzzle out the full cost of an air trip became personal for me recently when, for the first time in years, I needed to buy a ticket one day for travel the next day. Thats a scenario some business travelers face regularly, but I have had the luxury of longer lead times to plan a trip, giving me time to take advantage of advance-purchase discounts. In my case, I needed to visit the bedside of my 98-year-old mother in her final days. Although she had been slowly fading for years, now I decided I should not delay a visit by even a day.
Using Expedia, I found a lot of choice, with roundtrip fares of less than $300 to well over $700. Would it be the apparently low $298 price on Delta that involved connections in both directions, or my usual default choice, Southwest (default because of virtually no fees), at closer to $600 roundtrip? Among the considerations, the outbound Southwest flight was nonstop so that was a plus since I needed to get there fast. The total flight times on Delta on the return were a little shorter than Southwest's lowest-priced choices. But with that much difference in the fare, it would seem Delta should get my business.
But what about fees that could mean the real cost could be a lot more? I didn't have to worry about checked bag fees in either direction since this would be a short trip with a single carry-on. On Southwest, the only one was the optional "early bird check-in" fee of $10 that puts you among the first 60 or so to board a flight. Before buying from Delta, however, I determined that when buying only 24 hours ahead, my lack of frequent-flier status on the airline meant that there seemed to be no way to reserve a seat. It looked as if I would be randomly assigned a middle seat on all four legs of the trip.
After a good 10 minutes of drilling down on the Delta Web site (I had earlier given up trying to determine Delta fees on Expedia.), I found some information, but it was practically useless. The airline appeared to be saying that after buying a ticket, I might be able to purchase an upgrade to a "preferred seat," one on a widow or aisle toward the front of the cabin, if there were any left after any last-minute frequent-flier demand was met. The cost for these "better" seats: $9 to $99 per segment, the site said. So what was I really going to wind up paying if I wanted to rest my arthritic old body in an aisle seat where I could get up and stretch when I needed? Was it going to be an extra $36 or might it be another $396? And I really had to work hard to even find out that much.
You can guess what I chose. I paid the higher fare on Southwest and was able to sit in an aisle seat on each flight, despite being in the "B" boarding group outbound because I had not had enough advance-purchase time to use early bird check-in. Did I pay more than I could have on Delta? Yes, perhaps a good bit more, but I didn't really care. The lack of transparency in what my trip on Delta would really cost wound up costing it not only my money on this trip but perhaps a lot more on future travel. I was so frustrated and disgusted that I certainly won't consider it first on my next trip.
In recent years, rental car companies have made clear the full cost of a prospective rental, including taxes and fees that can practically double the cost, while youre still shopping various company offers. The Federal Trade Commission has just issued a warning to 22 hotel operating companies about their practice of not including mandatory charges such as a resort fee in advertised daily rates, saying the FTC could nail them with penalties for the deceptive practice.
If Delta or any airline wants to tell me how I failed to be a smart consumer in using Expedia or the Delta site, I'll listen. Or maybe not. I'm so tired of this run-around. I see no other way for airlines to regain my trust than for them to be forced to follow a federal rule requiring full transparency in air-travel costs.
(Some of this information first appeared on my Winging It blog: http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/wingingit/The-agony-of-determining-what-a-flight-really-costs.html
About Tom Belden
Tom Belden is a freelance writer who has been covering the travel industry for three decades. He previously was a staff member of The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he wrote columns on travel for the Business News and Travel sections. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.