Changes weighed in ads for airfares

Regulators might relax rules on listing charges

March 14, 2006|By BOSTON GLOBE

Federal regulators are considering allowing airlines to run airfare advertisements that would make it difficult or impossible for consumers to figure out the price of a ticket.

For nearly 22 years, the federal Department of Transportation has held that airlines advertising fares must list the total cost of the ticket. Taxes and fees could be omitted from the advertised price but had to be listed in the fine print.

Now the federal agency is considering amending the rule and possibly doing away with it. That would theoretically permit airlines to advertise prices that didn't include carrier-specific charges for fuel and other amenities as well as taxes and fees.

"Comparison shopping is difficult enough," said Hugo Burge, vice chairman of of Boston, which helps travelers find fares. "This just seems like a step in the wrong direction. You end up comparing apples and hamburgers."

Burge said some airlines in the United Kingdom have drawn attention to low base fares by excluding all sorts of items that most travelers would consider part of a standard air trip. Ryanair, Burge said, has tried to break out charges for using a credit card and even created a levy for passengers who need wheelchairs.

On its Web site, Ryanair advertises flights "from 38 cents" to an airport near Stockholm, Sweden, from London. In smaller print, Ryanair says its prices are exclusive of taxes, fees, and charges that would not exceed $26.

The push for a change in the U.S. Transportation Department's airline advertising rule began last fall, when the president of the Air Transport Association asked permission for airlines to break out rising fuel surcharges from advertised base fares. The request was rejected because it would have violated the agency's price advertising rule, but Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta decided to open the rule for review.

The department asked for comments on four options: maintain the status quo; toughen the rule by requiring advertised fares to include taxes and fees; eliminate the rule; and or eliminate most of the requirements of the rule but make airlines list in the fine print all the elements of a fare so a consumer could ascertain the total price.

American Airlines is pushing for elimination of the rule. "Fare-setting by the federal government ended long ago under the Airline Deregulation Act," the airline said in its submission to the agency. "The department's price advertising rule, inherited from the Civil Aeronautics Board, should similarly be terminated in favor of the competitive market."

Ned Raynolds, an American Airlines spokesman, said no decision has been made on how the airline will advertise fares if the Transportation Department adopts its position.

"One step at a time," Raynolds said. "Right now, we're just making our input to the Department of Transportation on what we believe is best to do."

Several other airlines also support eliminating the rule, including Delta Air Lines, Continental Airlines and United Airlines. US Airways and British Airways indicated they favor a more liberal interpretation of the rule and more leeway in advertising on the Internet, radio and billboards, and in promotions before movies. The airlines argue that competition would keep advertising from getting out of hand.

Other carriers, including Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Air Tran Airways, Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines, along with the American Society of Travel Agents, said full disclosure of an airfare's price is as necessary today as it was 22 years ago. The airlines and agents said airfare transparency enhances price competition.

The opponents of change said the potential for abuse would be huge if airlines could advertise fares without including fees and charges for fuel, insurance and an assortment of other items that haven't even been thought of yet.

"It is easy, for example, to imagine an eye-catching advertisement touting a coast-to-coast fare of $99, with an additional $150 of airline-imposed `surcharges' buried in the fine print," Southwest said in its submission to the Transportation Department.

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