In early December, the DOT disappointed consumer advocates when it withdrew an eleventh-hour Obama administration proposal to impose more stringent baggage fee disclosure requirements on airlines and travel agents. Airlines editor Robert Silk spoke last week with Air Travel Fairness Coalition executive director Kurt Ebenhoch, whose organization advocates for transparency in the airfare distribution business, about that DOT decision and about other concerns he has related to airline distribution practices.
Q: The Obama administration proposal would have required sellers of airfare to disclose fees for carry-on and checked bags from the beginning of a fare inquiry, as opposed to only mentioning those fees later in the process. But the Trump DOT said no, citing the administration's commitment to streamlining regulation. Is it fair to assume you don't agree with that call?
A: We were very disappointed with the decision. It's just another example of the DOT putting airline profits ahead of the consumers who they're charged with protecting. When you look at the mission of the DOT, they are supposed to prevent the consumer from being deceived.
Q: Can you explain how you believe consumers are being misled?
A: In the case of this one rule, it would have required baggage fees to be shown the first time a fare is displayed. Right now, airlines are doing it differently in terms of when these fees are shown. One airline may display it toward the end of the purchasing process, while another may have it included in the cost. But it just makes it incredibly difficult for the consumer to know what the fee is. It adds time for consumers, and by the time they learn the cost, they may be so far down the path that they just buy the ticket even though it's more than they thought. It's just another example of a larger pattern we are seeing from the airlines that are making it more difficult for consumers to compare all the airfare and schedule options available to them.
Q: A larger pattern?
A: The four largest carriers are trying to pick winners or losers in the travel distribution space by withholding their inventory, and in a consolidated marketplace that can have incredible impact. For example, in this high-tech information age, in most cases there is not a single website or GDS that can tell a traveler all of the flights available to them. It's not for technological reasons or legal reasons, it's because the airlines want it that way.
Q: Doesn't an airline have the right to sell wherever they want?
A: We're not saying that companies should be forced into doing business with each other. But we do believe that airfares and schedules are public information and consumers should have access to them at the travel resources of their choice. They are flying in public facilities in public airways supported by public employees. Our position is, let's be transparent and have it all out in the open so the consumer can make an informed choice.
Q: When does the fare info become public in your view?
A: Once it is in a public setting. Once something is out in the public domain, it is free for anyone to take.
Q: Southwest doesn't let any OTAs sell their tickets. Is that OK?
A: What we'd like to see is the data displayed anywhere. So if you go to an OTA, even if they don't sell Southwest, a consumer should be able to compare all of the airfare and schedule options available to them.
Q: So are you talking about a site like Hipmunk, where in response to a fare inquiry it says, "see Southwest," then makes you go to the Southwest site for price and schedule information?
A: Well that's one of them. But we're seeing that with other airlines and other sites. When there were more players there was much less of that happening. The market was more competitive.