Consumer rights advocates bemoan the lack of airline fee transparency in indirect points of sale. They say it's hard at the time of booking to assess the full cost of a trip once you add in extra charges, especially for items or services that were once included in the base fare.
At least for bag fees, though, full pricing transparency now is available to indirect sales channels through the dominant fare-publishing house.
ATPCo in the past year has provided subscribers, including GDSs, a centralized database that includes a wealth of real-time information on bag fees and rules covering 349 airlines.
Through the database, carriers define fees based on how many bags a passenger plans to check as well as charges for excess, overweight and oversized luggage.
Also included are baggage rules, through which carriers denote differences in bag fees based on fare type or passenger, including whether such fees are waived for business-class buyers or elite frequent flyers. ATPCo also discloses fees for carry-on luggage, though few carriers have elected to implement such charges.
Nine entities, including ATPCo, already subscribe to the database, and the GDSs are among them.
Sabre noted that it has been "using the ATPCo-filed baggage data to disclose the DOT-required baggage allowances and charges since the deadline of 24 January 2012," referring to a Department of Transportation deadline for bag fee disclosures.
Sabre uses the data "to provide specific information to both Sabre travel agents and hosted airlines, rather than directing the consumers to a hyperlink where they can find the data," which was another avenue for compliance with DOT's mandate.
Meanwhile, Travelport "accepts baggage allowance and charges data from ATPCo, and we are working to integrate that data into our pricing responses for release in late July," according to Travelport.
As for Amadeus, "We already have a proprietary database solution in place to meet the DOT mandate. However, we also are developing a longer-term solution that will incorporate baggage information from ATPCo."
ATPCo manager of industry solutions, Fred Foote, said the fare-publishing firm transmits data to GDSs much like it transmits fares.
"We have two ways of accessing it," he said, "We can either send it out like we do fares and, like they build a pricing engine, they build a baggage engine. That's what the big guys are doing. They're just taking our raw data. The other way to do it is with our baggage calculator."
Through that tool, ATPCo taps into its database to calculate bag fees based on itinerary and traveler information. Database helps agents with compliance
Driven by an IATA resolution seeking to automate baggage pricing and rules data, ATPCo in January 2011 began building its database and collecting such information. By April 2011, however, another use for the database revealed itself, Foote noted.
Finalized that April and phased in during the past year, DOT initiated new rules that required "both carriers and ticket agents to provide information on the first screen in which the ticket agent or carrier offers a fare quotation for a specific itinerary selected by a consumer that additional airline fees for baggage may apply and where consumers can go to access these baggage fees."
Agents fretted over their options for compliance. ASTA in an extension request filed last year argued that agents either had to link to a carrier website, which essentially "refers its customer to the website of a competitor," or "somehow acquire the ancillary fee data for all airlines and place that large volume of information somewhere on its own website," according to comments submitted by ASTA's senior vice president of legal and industry affairs, Paul Ruden.
A full solution, according to ASTA, would come only if airlines shared "ancillary fee information dynamically to the agent in response to booking inquiries similarly to the way that fares are delivered."
That, in essence, is what ATPCo since has delivered.
"We think the product is at a point where the data supports the U.S. DOT," said Foote. "Now, does it do absolutely everything a carrier might need? Probably not, but we might not know that yet."
Why the confusion? Foote explained that there are complications in disclosing bag fees for itineraries involving codesharing or interlining. There also are potential complications when the bag fee quoted at the point of sale changes by the day of departure.
While DOT stuck firm to its bag fee disclosure requirements, effective this January, for situations in which "all of the flights on a passenger's itinerary are operated by a single carrier with no code share or interlining, or with domestic code sharing between a mainline carrier and its regional partners," they extended until later this month the deadline for airline compliance with a few of the trickier compliance points.
Airlines for America, IATA, the Regional Airline Association and the Air Carrier Association of America last month requested another extension, until early next year. Is transparency enough?
Transparency of bag fee information was just one of the requests ASTA, the Business Travel Coalition, the Interactive Travel Services Association and others have taken to DOT. The other is what they've called "transactability"—not just the ability to disclose in indirect channels ancillary fees for bags and beyond, but also the ability to sell them.
"True transparency requires that fees be purchasable during the same transaction with airfares," according to prepared remarks shared by BTC chairman Kevin Mitchell prior to a meeting last week of DOT's Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection. "In this symbiotic relationship, there can be no real transparency without purchasability and no effective purchasability without automated and real-time transparent fee data."
Still in the incubator, DOT's next phase of passenger-protection rules is slated to include a provision that ponders "whether the Department should require that ancillary fees be displayed through all sale channels."
Some have suggested that should include a rule requiring the sale of ancillaries in all channels in which airlines participate, but the statement notes DOT is eyeing the "display" of fees, not necessarily the ability to buy and sell them.
Yet, the exact wording of the rule will remain unclear until DOT finally unveils the long-delayed proposal, now slated for late November.
Opposing the stance of ASTA, BTC and others, airlines have argued that such a provision to require airlines to sell ancillaries through the indirect channels in which they participate would "interfere in contractual relationships between airlines and GDSs." Source: The Beat