WASHINGTON – Nearly two-thirds (63%) of airline travelers voiced frustration with having to take several steps to buy services such as checked baggage and seat assignment with their tickets, according to a national survey that consumer groups released Thursday.
The survey found 88% saying it was "very" or "extremely" important to require airlines to disclose those fees when selling the services through travel agents and websites, as the Transportation Department has proposed in a pending rule.
Some 71% of respondents said the rule should be strengthened to require airlines to sell those services when they sell the tickets, rather than waiting until a traveler arrives at the airport, for example.
"Comparison shopping is the basis for the free market," said Charlie Leocha, chairman of the advocacy group Travelers United. "By hiding the prices of baggage, seat reservation and other services, airlines are deceiving consumers by only advertising and disclosing partial costs of travel."
The survey comes at a time when the Transportation Department is collecting comment on its proposal, called Consumer Rule 3, until Sept. 22.
But airlines have strongly opposed previous consumer rules as unnecessary under deregulation, saying competition will yield the best results for consumers. Airlines are increasingly selling services piecemeal, collecting $6 billion last year for baggage and flight-change fees alone.
"We believe this proposal overreaches and limits how free markets work and will needlessly inhibit market innovations that are developing to meet customer demand for customized information," said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, which represents the largest airlines.
Under the department's proposal, airlines and ticket agents would be required to disclose fees for basic services such as first and second checked bags, carry-on items and seat assignments at all points of sale. The proposal would also:
• Require large-volume travel agents to adopt minimum customer-service standards such as responding promptly to customer complaints and holding reservations for 24 hours without payment. Travel agents range from mom-and-pop storefronts to massive online operations like Orbitz.
• Require airlines and ticket agents to disclose the airlines actually providing flights under code-share arrangements on the initial itinerary displays on their websites.
• Prohibit travel agents from ranking flights of certain carriers above others without disclosing the bias in any presentation of carrier schedules, fares, rules or availability.
"These hidden fees lead to consumer surprise when consumers find out that services previously included in a ticket price must now be separately paid for," said Kevin Mitchell, founder of the Business Travel Coalition of travel managers.
Philip Minardi, spokesman for the Travel Technology Association, which includes the companies that offer comparison shopping for tickets, said it's imperative for the department to act.
"Consumers have that fundamental right to know the upfront costs of their entire trip and not be surprised at the airport with extra fees from the airlines," he said.
The advocates said their survey found that travelers want even greater assistance in airline shopping.
"The proposed DOT rule gets almost halfway there by requiring airlines to share their fees for baggage and seat assignments, but it fails to address the intertwined issue of how to buy those services at the time of ticket purchase," said Andrew Weinstein, executive director of Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, a coalition of more than 400 companies and organizations involved in the distribution or purchase of air travel. "Playing peek-a-boo with prices will not address the underlying consumer harm, unless travelers can purchase those fees wherever they buy their tickets."
Paul Ruden, senior vice president for the American Society of Travel Agents, said that even though airlines were deregulated in 1978, the department has the power to require airlines to disclose all fees and provide for their sale at all locations where tickets are sold. Hiding the fees is unfair and deceptive, he argued.
"From the legal point of view, I don't think there's any question the department has the authority it needs," Ruden said. "What it does not have at the moment -- and we hope to persuade it -- is the will to act."
Among the survey's findings:
• More than half of air travelers (55%) said they had been surprised by additional fees after they had purchased their tickets.
• Roughly half (47%) said it has become "very difficult" or "nearly impossible" for them to search among airlines to find the lowest fare for air travel that included fees.
• Four out of five (81%) said that current airline practices on fees are "unfair and deceptive."
• More than 80% said the department should expand the rule to cover at least one other type of ancillary fee, including cancellation fees (68%), change fees (64%) and priority boarding fees (49%).
The survey was conducted online through SurveyMonkey.com among 1,162 U.S. adults who have flown at least once in the past year. The survey was taken Aug. 28 through Sept. 1; responses have a margin of error of plus or minus 3%.