Travelers wait for checked bags at Hartsfield-Jackson International. A proposed DOT federal rule calls for airlines and travel websites to add more information about fees. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Obama rule sparks baggage fee fight

Airline baggage fees irk many travelers, and regulators have wrestled for years with how to ensure fliers are clearly informed about them when they shop for flights.

Now the government, in an 11th-hour Obama administration proposal, wants to require airlines and travel booking sites to show baggage fees right alongside fares.

“Customers should be able to pick the most affordable options based on their needs,” outgoing Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a written statement. “Displaying the fees for transporting carry on and checked bags alongside the fare will make the cost of travel more transparent.”

The International Air Transport Association, an industry group, lambasted the move as “yet another DOT intrusion into the commercial marketplace that is completely contrary to the principles of airline deregulation” and called its timing “shocking and inappropriate.”

The DOT will take public comment for 60 days, a move to stretch the idea into at least the first couple months of the Trump administration.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and other major carriers started charging for checked bags in 2008, and by now most passengers are well familiar with the concept. But the question of where and how airlines and online travel agencies should be required to display baggage fees has been debated for years.

Not all airlines impose the fees — a notable holdout is Southwest Airlines, Delta’s top rival in Atlanta — or charge the same amounts. Some smaller carriers charge for the use of overhead bins to hold carry-ons, which could further complicate comparison shopping.

The proposed DOT rule is to require airlines to disclose fees for a first checked bag, second checked bag and carry-on bag with airfare information.

The DOT in 2012 required that airline websites show if there are additional baggage fees, and “inform consumers where they can go to see these fees.”

The proposed rule would go further, requiring that baggage fees be disclosed by airlines and ticket agents, and provide “customer-specific fee quotes” that include discounts for frequent flier status, for example.

It follows a December 2016 White House report on competition and hidden fees that said: “The question of ‘what counts as the ‘entire price’ has, for regulators, proved to be an evolving question…. change fees and baggage fees may be optional in a theoretical sense, yet in practice unavoidable for many passengers.”

The report said fees and taxes “can add up to as much as half of the ticket price, which explains in part the importance of their disclosure.”

But how to best display baggage fees for purposes of comparison and clarity is complicated, FareCompare’s Seaney said.

One issue is how to display numerous options with fees while comparing itineraries on a mobile phone display, the way many people shop for flights, he said.

“Having all that information at the time of purchase before they ding your credit card is absolutely something that should be done,” Seaney said. “When you’re comparison shopping, it’s very difficult to do. And so they better get it right.”

Upfront payment sought

The Travel Technology Association — which represents online travel agencies and sites including Expedia, Priceline and TripAdvisor and global distribution systems like Travelport that distribute air fare data — wants the proposal to also require that travelers be able to pay for baggage fees on travel sites, not just see how much they cost.

That would increase the utility of the travel sites.

Industry group Airlines for America, which represents major U.S. carriers, though not Delta, issued a statement saying: “Dictating to the airline industry distribution and commercial practices would only benefit those third parties who distribute tickets, not the flying public.”

But the Travel Technology Association argues that the federal regulation can help consumers and should go even further.

“It’s increasingly difficult for customers to determine the cost of their itinerary,” association spokeswoman Emily Cullum said. “We believe transparency on bag fees without transactability is only marginally helpful to consumers.”

Cullum said the association is “hopeful that the new administration will take up the mantle of consumer protection in air travel and ensure that consumers can access all the information that they need when shopping for air.”

Even with full disclosure, some travelers may never be happy with baggage fees.

“It’s an extra fee,” Seaney said. But, “there are many people who are 30 years old buying airline tickets who don’t know what it’s like not to have a bag fee. They’ve never bought tickets that don’t have one … They’re probably not cranky about it because they grew up with it.”

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