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Travel Agents Complain About Airline Fees, Too

Charisse Jones at USA Today reports that airline fees are beginning to frustrate travel agents—brick-and-mortar agencies and online behemoths alike. The preponderance of fees along with the unpredictable and often muted changes to fee policies make it difficult for travel agencies to keep up. “Now,” Jones writes, “some who help plan and book travel are demanding that the travel industry come up with standards that would let them more easily provide and display up-to-date information on a flight’s final cost, from the fare to baggage fees.”

This reflects several aspects of the travel industry, and the ways it has changed over the past two years. Airlines don’t exactly broadcast new fees or fee hikes, and often bury the news in press releases with deceptively innocuous titles. Take, for example, American’s recent move to replace free standby with a $50 confirmed seat policy. The headline of the corresponding press release? “American Airlines Streamlines Its Airport Processes.”

For people trained to see through this sort of PR bait-and-switch (such as yours truly), a headline like “American Airlines Streamlines Its Airport Processes” is a screaming red flag. It’s too vague and benign to actually be vague and benign. But to some, the headline may be so uninteresting that there seems to be no point in reading the release. And that’s exactly what American, or any airlines, wants.

That said, the information is out there, both from the airlines themselves and third-party sources. Forgive the shameless plug, but we do a pretty good job of cataloging airline fees here, with our Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees as well as the Ultimate Guide: Europe Edition. Numerous online travel agencies, such as Expedia and Travelocity, have added fees charts of their own, and sister site Tripadvisor’s flight search allows customers to estimate their fees and compare subsequent total airfare costs between carriers.

Still, keeping up with fees is a manual process, which seems to be at the root of the travel agencies’ complaints. “There’s a real problem getting that information at the same time and in the same manner as the airlines themselves disclose it,” Art Sackler, executive director of the Interactive Travel Services Association, tells Jones. As one of the editors in charge of keeping our charts current, I can tell you there is a lot of work involved, from tracking the fees to updating our information as soon as a new fee comes up. But it’s my job to do that. Travel agents have customers to deal with, bookings to arrange, etc. (Maybe they should bookmark our chart—just a thought!)

The ideal way to handle baggage fees, however, is for fees to be included alongside airfare results in the first place. Debbie Iannaci, spokeswoman for Amadeus North America, a technology company for the travel industry, tells Jones the goal “is to enable true side-by-side comparisons of options, including costs, across multiple airlines.” If all the major airfare databases could bundle fees with the airfares they list, customers could more easily calculate total costs and compare them between carriers. This sort of transparency would prevent sticker shock at the airport, when travelers are forced to fork over an extra $30 or $50 for their checked bags.

But this concept is the exact opposite of what the airlines want. The industry has developed a “book first, pay later” model, where travelers are enticed by low fares, only to keep doling out cash for bags, snacks, and everything else long after the ticket is issued. If fees were more clearly highlighted during the booking process, well, airlines may as well ditch the whole a-la-carte model altogether. Which, of course, would mean higher fares, and we’d be right back where we started.

Readers, how do you keep track of airline fees? And what do you think would be the best way to make them clearer and easier to compare?

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