Everyone involved in air travel — online travel agents, federal transportation officials, consumer advocates and airlines — claims to want to give passengers more information about prices for options such as meals and seat assignments while buying tickets.
But a fight has broken out among them as the Department of Transportation develops a rule that could force airlines to provide all those choices to travel agents so they could make it easier to compare the total price of flights among airlines.
Airlines contend they provide the fees on their own websites and can spread the information more broadly through specific deals such as the one Delta Air Lines has to market seats with extra legroom on its two-class aircraft.
But consumer advocates, travel agents and the companies that provide ticket-price comparisons argue that the government needs to force airlines to provide the data so customers can compare. The difference is between going to specific sites, such as Southwest Airlines, or to comparison sites such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity.
The fight will get a public airing Aug. 7, when a consumer-advocate panel that makes recommendations to the DOT will look at the department's plans to issue a rule by late November that could force airlines to provide the computerized information about all their fees to comparison companies.
" "Consumers are being denied the ability to compare prices," says Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance and a member of the panel called the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection. "They can't compare apples to apples easily."
Robert Rivkin, DOT general counsel, says disclosing prices for more than 100 categories of fees quickly isn't an easy task. "That is something we are looking at very carefully, as you know, but we have to make sure we understand all the unintended and intended consequences of that," Rivkin says.
Fees are an important and growing part of each ticket, and of airlines' bottom lines. Bag fees generated nearly $3.4 billion at the 17 largest airlines last year, and re-booking fees generated nearly $2.4 billion , according to DOT figures.
Airlines are increasingly pricing their tickets piecemeal, with separate charges for food, seat assignments and seatback entertainment.
While the fees are on each airline's website, they often come up near the end of the process of booking a ticket. Comparing ticket prices with fees included requires visiting each airline's site. Travel agents can't pull up side-by-side comparisons on their computer screens.
"This shouldn't be a guessing game," says Paul Ruden, senior vice president for legal and industry affairs at the American Society of Travel Agents. "They should be able, at the same time as they're looking at the flight times and the price, that these are the options, and you can buy them. That's what the fight is about."
The dispute focuses on organizations called Global Distribution Systems, or GDS, that allow the easy comparison of ticket prices among participating airlines. Three companies dominate the business worldwide —Sabre Holdings and Travelport in the United States and Amadeus IT Holding in Europe.
The companies provide the information to travel agents, who make comparisons for travelers. The systems are used by 96% of corporate agents and 86% of leisure agents, according to PhoCusWright, which analyzes the travel industry.