What you see might not be what you get when shopping for flights

The debate over airline pricing transparency has taken many turns, but recently there has been movement that benefits passengers. For a few years, airlines in the U.S. have been required to advertise the entire cost of a ticket, taxes and fees included, or face fines. But some believe the requirements do not go far enough.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) implemented rules requiring airlines to make the total fare, taxes and all, the most prominent number in their fare displays. Airlines have now found some friends in Congress who are pushing legislation aimed at rolling back some of these requirements (the big number part, namely), so that airlines can advertise their cheaper base fares again – the compromise being that they will also show the taxes and fees in their displays, only separately. Airlines have argued that since nearly 21 percent of an average domestic ticket in the U.S. is made up of taxes and fees, their fares appear inflated to shoppers. They feel that the flying public should know what part of their ticket goes to the government. Surveys suggest that passengers appreciate knowing the total cost right from the start.

The DOT is now looking to mandate the up-front disclosure of other fees such as those for checked luggage and seat assignments through all airline and travel agent distribution systems. However, the travel agency community not only wants to make sure that their systems get to display the same information that the airlines display but that these add-on items be made available for purchase through their systems as well.

Some airlines already allow customers to pay their fees online, some even offering discounts versus paying at the airport, but travel agents find themselves at a disadvantage in this regard. For their clients, and for anyone unable pay for their add-on services online, the payments have to be made after the purchase of the ticket, typically at the airport. If the new rules go into effect without the requirement that airlines make the fees available for purchase through all channels, not just merely displaying them, agents argue that a true apples-to-apples comparison cannot be made, leaving online and traditional travel agencies at a disadvantage. Global distribution systems, the engines that provide fare and schedule data to travel agents and online booking sites like Expedia and Orbitz account for roughly half of all airline ticket sales in the U.S.