Regulation Almost Levels the Airfare Shopping Field

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"Don't tell us about being out of luck!" That's what I figure the airlines are saying right about now. The new airfare/transparency regulations mean lots of problems for them (I can imagine the shouts ricocheting off the walls right now in airline IT departments). You better believe they fought the DOT on this; Southwest, Allegiant and Sprit even filed a suit to halt implementation of the rule with the argument, what other business has to disclose all taxes in ads? The DOT, however, gave the airlines one stay of execution last summer and has declined to do so again.

The airlines have a point. When they argue that other businesses don't have to disclose taxes up-front they're thinking of that big-screen TV special at a Los Angeles Best Buy which won't cost California shoppers the advertised price of $400, it'll cost $435 after taxes. But that's nothing compared with airline tickets taxes and fees which add an estimated 20 percent or more to the cost of many airline tickets and sometimes much, much more depending on the destination.

Don't bring up the auto industry in front of airline execs, either, or you'll hear plenty about nobody's-ever-given-us-a-bailout. Too big to fail? They simply point to venerable American Airlines' recent bankruptcy filing as Exhibit A. Did anyone hear the feds say anything about bailing AA out? Not a peep.

Another problem for carriers: figuring out the specific taxes and fees mandated by different airports and governments in a panoply of countries can be a nightmare especially for international flights. A lot has to do with routing, since some fees are based on the number of take-offs/landings (or 'legs' of a trip) plus the different fees mandated by airports.

Say you search for a flight from New York to Rome. The airlines can show you a bunch of different routes and the prices can be all over the place map depending on how you travel. A direct flight may be more expensive (the airlines sometimes build in a premium for what I call the convenience factor) but there may be more taxes associated with routes with connecting flights. How will they show you a "best" price?

Then there's the advertising venue problem. If the DOT decides to fine an airline for advertising violations -- and always camera-ready Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has a track record of zealously pursuing rule violators with well-publicized fines -- who shares in the penalty? Will billboards, newspapers and websites be fined as well? It's not that farfetched when you recall that Google agreed to pay half a billion dollars earlier this year to settle allegations that ads for online Canadian pharmacies on its website allowed illegal imports of prescription drugs.

But let's get back to you, the passenger. The new DOT rules are a good thing. Honest pricing always is. However, it doesn't mean your job is done.

Airlines will always try to get you to pay the most money possible every time you fly, so you will still have to be a smart shopper. The good news is, that playing field that used to slope away from us just got a little bit more level.

Related links:

Department of Transportation Fines Airtrain for Deceptive Price Ads

Google Fined for Canadian Pharmacy Ads

Google Founder Attacks Piracy Bill Set for House Panel Vote

When to Buy Airline Tickets

Are Super Low Airfares for Real?

New Protections Likely to Increase Fares

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.

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