Airfare transparency: DOT moves to protect air passengers’ rights

dot2ONCE again the US Department of Transportation (DOT) is challenging airlines to be more customer-friendly where it probably matters most: fare transparency. This is part of the plan to protect the rights of airline passengers, aimed at ensuring that they “know exactly what they’re buying” and “get what they pay for – without hidden fees or last-minute complications” according to a statement issued by the White House.

For a long time, this has been the concern of the administration that the advertised airfare is not quite the picture of its real cost. In fact, some airlines have been fined for misleading the customer. Across the pond, the European Union too faces the difficult task of monitoring a similar scenario whereby the customer is only led to believe he or she is getting the best deal when the bottom line, heaped on with unknown surcharges, shows otherwise. This has caused difficulty for the customer to make an informed decision. Elsewhere in the world, many governments are not ready to confront the issue.

CEO Nicholas E Calio of Airlines for America, a trade organization, warned that such an initiative could drive up the cost of air travel. He said: “Airlines have different business models and must be allowed to continue offering optional services in a manner that makes sense for both their customers and their business. Efforts designed to re-regulate how airlines distribute their products and services are bad for airlines customers, employees, the communities we serve and our overall US economy.”

Indeed, the airline business has adopted an astutely unique methodology in fare computation that separates the cost of a ticket from surcharges (the list gets longer and less specific over time) that would have customers believe are not part of the fare. However, it should be pointed out that the argument here is not about labels, but rather what it actually costs in toto to the customer when he or she buys a ticket. That is, we’re talking about the bottom line. The problem is compounded by how different airlines are levying different surcharges and at different rates. It is only fair that customers know what they for what they are paying to help them arrive at an informed decision.

The DOT’s new ruling does not regulate what the airlines are charging but how they treat those costs in their presentation to their customers. To increase transparency for consumers, DOT is considering requiring airlines to provide their customers with “all-in pricing.” Surely the community will welcome that. Mr Calio’s reaction smacks of the fear among the airlines of open competition, which DOT hopes to boost with the transparency, stating that “maintaining, encouraging, and supporting a fair, efficient, and competitive marketplace is a cornerstone of the American economy.”

Whether the DOT’s move will result in higher costs as warned by Mr Calio or drive down the cost through heightened competition as DOT has hoped, it cannot fudge the issue of transparency and fairness as far as the consumer is concerned. And whether any increased charges consequent to the tightening of the rules are justifiable is a different issue.

Perhaps airlines are more concerned about what else DOT may do, besides forbidding “undisclosed bias by airlines and online agents”. The new rules will compel them to provide “more complete” airline performance reports, exposing the airlines to more stringent scrutiny by the administration that may result in punitive measures for poor performance or unfair practices. The DOT also want airlines to better protect travelers with disabilities, a sore point with not a few of them confronted with increased criticism of discrimination and insensitivity to the needs of those passengers, some of whom were allegedly denied boarding. Another hot issue is mishandled checked baggage, which in DOT’s views airlines are obliged to give their customers a more detailed picture of what happened. This inevitably raises the question of compensation.

Sceptics are apt to say that having rules and implementing them are two different things. An early champion of customer’s rights, the EU continues to face problems of monitoring and getting airlines to comply with the rules, particularly where they involve compensation for delayed or cancelled flights and mishandled baggage. There has been a backlog of unresolved cases where airlines appear to be tardy, reluctant or noncommittal when called upon to fulfil their obligations. All the more, the DOT’s new rules are significant in continuing to push for what is only fair.

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About Dingzi
Writer by passion, with professional expertise in aviation, customer service and creative writing. Aviation veteran, author, editor and management consultant. Besides commentary on business issues and life-interest topics, travel stories and book reviews, genres include fiction, poetry and plays. Nature lover who abhors cruelty of any form to animals, and a tireless traveler. Above all, a dreamer.

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