DOT fees-disclosure plan met with widespread opposition

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ULCCs like Allegiant tend to be the U.S. airlines most reliant on ancillary products like seat assignments.
ULCCs like Allegiant tend to be the U.S. airlines most reliant on ancillary products like seat assignments. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Allegiant Air

The Biden administration is touting its new proposal to require airlines, travel advisors and OTAs to disclose a broad array of ancillary fees upfront as the latest in a series of efforts it is making to bolster airline consumer protection.

But the proposal, which was put forward by the DOT on Sept. 26, already faces opposition from airlines and travel advisors and even some criticism from consumer advocates.

The proposed regulations would require air carriers and all sellers of air travel to reveal baggage fees, change and cancellation fees and family seating fees at the same time as base ticket prices are revealed during an online search.

The regulation would also require travel advisors to provide that same information as they discuss ticket prices with clients via telephone or in person.

The family seating provision applies to children 13 and under, but because the seat assignment fees that flyers often pay to ensure they can sit with their children change frequently, the rule would require that those seats be bookable with the fare at all points of sale.

Series of DOT proposals

The proposal had been in the works since at least last summer, when President Biden issued a broad executive designed to bolster competition in the U.S. economy.

Its release came on the heels of a series of consumer-related proposals from the DOT related to flying, including an August proposal to require airlines to offer refunds when they delay domestic flights for three hours or longer or international flights for six hours or longer. Last week, ASTA offered its support for this newest proposal, with vice president of advocacy Eben Peck noting that the Society, "has long believed that consumers deserve full transparency in airfares and optional ancillary service fees."

Still, Peck said ASTA will fight the provision that would require travel advisors to disclose each fee during all offline transactions, expressing concern about the impact it would have on operations.

Airlines, meanwhile, dismissed the proposed regulation as unnecessary. 

Airlines for America, which represents American, Delta, United, Southwest, Alaska, JetBlue and Hawaiian, and the National Air Carrier Association (NACA), whose members, such as ultralow-cost carriers (ULCCs) Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit and Sun Country, tend to be the U.S. airlines most reliant on ancillary products, offered similar thoughts. 

"The ULCCs already ensure that consumers are fully educated about their ancillary options and have the ability to select the services they want at each stage of the booking process," NACA said.

Conversely, consumer advocate Bill McGee of the American Economic Liberties Project said the new regulations don't go far enough. Though he commended the DOT for "efforts to make the opaque air travel shopping process more transparent and fair," in a tweet last week, McGee added that the department needs to abolish fees for families with children under 13 to sit together, rather than merely making the fees more transparent.

The public will have 60 days after the proposal is published in the Federal Register to comment.

Jay Boehmer, who covers airline distribution as editor-in-chief of The Beat, a sister publication to Travel Weekly, said to expect plenty of input from industry stakeholders.

"There are going to be lot of questions from people in the industry about what the rule says and how it is applied," Boehmer said.

He added that Airlines for America has already asked that the comment period for the DOT's newly proposed refund rules be extended from 90 days to 150 days.

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