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Anti-Consumer Airfare Display Bill Sneaks Through House

The ironically named Transparent Airfares Act of 2014 passed the House of Representatives on July 28. This misbegotten bill, which would actually make the costs of air travel less transparent, passed by voice vote, presumably in part to avoid embarrassing the self-proclaimed pro-consumer representatives who supported it.

A quick recap: The bill would undo an important Department of Transportation (DOT) consumer protection and allow airlines to display airfares at less than their full cost by omitting federal taxes and airport fees until the end of the purchase process. And as I noted in an earlier column, this bill was based on four misrepresentations:

  • “Consumers want this.” No; what consumers really want is what the DOT gave them in 2012: Honest, all-up advertising of the true cost of an airline ticket from the get-go. All of the major consumer advocacy and business travel groups, from Consumers Union to the Business Travel Coalition, oppose the bill.
  • “Government fees and taxes are hidden from the public.” No; airlines post them in easily accessible form for anyone who cares.
  • “Virtually all consumer products are advertised at a base price, with taxes added on at the point of purchase.” No; the only taxes added at the point of purchase are state and local sales taxes, which do not apply to airline tickets. Federal excise taxes and user fees such as those on alcohol, tobacco, and gasoline, on the other hand, are always included in the base prices on all products to which they apply. Moreover, unlike sales taxes, most air ticket taxes, fees, and charges go directly or indirectly to support air travel.
  • “The bill will restore transparency to the advertising of U.S. airline ticket prices.” No; you don’t have to be an astrophysicist to figure out that the bill will obscure the total cost of travel, not make it more transparent.

Consumer advocates are worried not only about the current bill but also about what it portends. They see it as the beginning of an all-out assault by big airlines against all consumer protections for air travelers. When airlines couldn’t push the DOT around on this issue—it doesn’t accept campaign contributions—they turned to more willing and culpable allies in Congress, who maneuvered it through with no opportunity for opposition to be heard. If this sneaky ploy works, you can bet the airlines have more lined up for future action. Some consumer advocates see the airlines’ next target as the three-hour tarmac-delay rule. My worry is that the next target might be allowing airlines to exclude airline-imposed fees such as “fuel surcharges” from advertised airfares, along with the taxes. Or maybe it could be to weaken bumping compensation rules. Or, ultimately, all of the above.

The bill’s supporters used a back-door procedure to get the bill through the House: The relevant committee held no hearings or debate; instead, the members added it to the House “suspension calendar” that is designed to let a bunch of noncontroversial measures such as naming post offices go through without undue scrutiny. But, of course, this one isn’t noncontroversial. Opponents’ attention now turns to the Senate, where the sneak-attack ploy won’t work. And consumer advocates are also considering approaches to the White House in case a veto might be necessary.

If you long for a return to the good old days of airfare ads like “ROUND-TRIP TO LONDON, ONLY $399,” followed by tiny print at the bottom that reads “plus $699 taxes and fees,” then you should favor the House bill. But if you’d like to know up front what the full, actual cost of an air ticket would be, then you need to get behind the push to derail this anti-consumer effort. You can start by signing Travelers United’s online petition. Also, let your senators know your views.

As in my prior writings on this bill, the opinions expressed are my own and not those of SmarterTravel or Tribune Content Agency.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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