RADNOR, PA – US Representative Curbelo (R-Fla) has introduced an amendment to HR 4441, the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act of 2016 – as a gift to airlines in response to their objections to a 2012 US Department of Transportation (DOT) rule that requires airlines to prominently display total ticket prices in advertising and in internet displays, including government taxes and fees. The amendment would effectively reverse that DOT rule and undermine a critically important consumer protection that was adopted as a cure to airline bait-and-switch advertising. US Senator Fischer (R-Neb) in expected to offer a companion amendment.
Once again Members of the US Congress have given voters reason to be angered by a Washington elite whom they believe are not looking out for their interests. Aviation policy development has historically been a bipartisan endeavor in Washington for the benefit of consumers and the good of the country. In recent years, as represented by the Orwellian-named Transparent Airfares Act of 2014, which this amendment seeks to revive at the behest of airlines, sadly the policy objective has shifted from the good of the country to the demands of special interests with deep pockets and armies of lobbyists.
Under the 2012 DOT rule, airlines must prominently present in advertisements the total ticket price, which of course is what consumers care about. However, airlines are also permitted to display breakouts of government taxes and fees so long as they are less prominently displayed than are the total ticket prices. Additionally, there is no DOT requirement preventing airlines from also including in an advertisement base ticket prices (net of government taxes and fees), if they are likewise displayed less prominently than total ticket prices. Accordingly, airlines are free today to provide consumers with a detailed breakdown of total ticket prices. DOT’s obvious mission in adopting this rule was to prevent consumer confusion and deception about the full amount to be paid for various travel options.
This amendment would undermine DOT consumer protections by resurrecting a misleading and deceptive advertising practice that consumers have only recently gotten rid of. If the amendment is accepted in its present form, it would allow lower base ticket prices to be highlighted first and foremost, thus diminishing transparency by permitting total ticket prices and government taxes and fees to be disclosed merely in a manner that “clearly presents the information to the consumer,” according to the proposed amendment.
The most pernicious consumer consequences of this amendment, however, are with regard to its Internet advertising and solicitation provisions. Airlines would be free to conspicuously display “come-on” lower base ticket prices on initial screens and then dribble out information about the real, higher total ticket prices, including government taxes and fees, on other parts of their websites through a “link or pop up…that displays the information in a manner that is easily ‘accessible and viewable’ by the consumer.” This represents an open invitation for a return to unfair and deceptive marketing practices that were widespread before DOT took action in 2012 to protect consumers. It is an advertising trick often called “drip pricing.”
Consumers will loudly cry foul about this ill-conceived amendment. They do not object to airlines also disclosing government taxes and fees (which by the way enable essential airline infrastructure, safety and security) — but they want first to be told the all-in price so they know the real best options they should consider. Transparency of the full ticket price upfront with all taxes and fees included, and the ability to compare the all-in price of travel including the costs of ancillary services such as pre-reserved seat and baggage fees, is what matters to consumers and that is what Congress should be keenly focused on.
BTC strongly urges Representative Curbelo (R-Fla) to withdraw his amendment and Senator Fischer (R-Neb) to reconsider offering a companion amendment.