Photo: Airline passenger stowing bag

Fee for all: Fees for luggage are often difficult to determine in advance.

Photograph by Najlah Feanny, Corbis

By Christopher Elliott

If you’re looking for a bargain airline ticket—and let’s face it, who isn’t?—then you’ve probably felt like banging your head against the computer screen lately.

Some airlines have gone AWOL from popular travel booking sites. A recent search for a flight from Dallas to Miami on Orbitz.com pulled up fares on Delta, United, and US Airways. The cheapest flight, $340 on Delta, required a stopover in Memphis. But what about the $299 direct flight on American? Nowhere to be found. American isn’t on Orbitz at all.

Want to get from Atlanta to Chicago? Bargain hunters often click on CheapOAir.com. The site displays fares from American, Continental, and United but not Delta. Too bad. When checked, Delta was beating its competitors by $58 per round-trip.

Entire airlines have vanished from travel sites, often without warning. More could follow.

Worse, quoted airfares exclude many items that now cost extra. Want to check luggage on US Airways? Your first bag costs $25. Several airlines charge for a confirmed seat assignment. Spirit Airlines even makes passengers pay a $45 surcharge at the gate to carry on their bags beyond one “personal item.” Seriously. You almost have to be an accountant to figure out the true cost of flying.

When it comes to airfare shopping, we’ve fallen far and fast. As late as 2010, all major carriers except Southwest listed fares on the big online agencies. Two years before that, just about every domestic fare quote covered a reserved seat, the ability to check at least one bag, and in most cases, a snack or meal.

Since then, airlines have throttled comparison shopping. It’s more difficult to figure out which carrier offers the lowest price, and even if you find a low fare, the add-ons can kill you. Consumers are confused, and airlines apparently like it that way: Confusion translates into earnings as travelers spend more than they expected to. With airline profits threatened by higher energy costs, the industry is relying on these extras to keep its losses in check.

“The way airline tickets are sold is evolving,” says Michael Miller, a vice president at the American Aviation Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based aviation-policy think tank. The technology tweaks are bad for consumers but good for the industry. A recent IdeaWorks survey estimated the airline industry collected $22.6 billion last year in what it calls ancillary revenue such as baggage fees and onboard food sales. Scott Kirby, president of US Airways, which reportedly collected about half a billion dollars in fees last year, revealed at a recent investor conference that ancillary fees represent “100 percent” of the airline’s profitability, adding that he couldn’t overstate how important the surcharges were to the industry.

Indeed, it’s difficult to make any kind of overstatement about ancillary fees. As I write this, Spirit has quietly bumped up the surcharge on last-minute baggage fees; a checked bag now costs up to $38, one way.

The latest airline industry obsession is energy. Granted, fuel prices have spiked in the wake of Middle East unrest, but several airlines are adding fuel surcharges that border on the absurd. A recent British Airways round-trip flight from San Francisco to London was priced at an excellent $447 on its website—until you added fuel surcharges on the third booking screen. Then it cost $982, which may not be a terrible fare but is certainly misleading. One discount airline, Allegiant, even wants to sell a type of ticket that goes up—or down—as fuel prices fluctuate.

Still, why would airlines remove themselves from booking sites that sell their products? At the heart of the complicated dispute between Orbitz and American is a new reservation technology called Direct Connect. Think of it as a way for the airline to sell its tickets directly to an online travel agency, bypassing the traditional computer reservations systems. Airlines claim this new technology is a win-win, cutting their costs and giving passengers more choices. I’ve investigated, and I’m doubtful it will help us in a meaningful way. In the meantime, consumers have to visit multiple websites to see all available fares.

No one begrudges airlines’ right to save money, or make it. But it shouldn’t be done by withholding information consumers need to make choices. The big problem is that airlines generally don’t disclose the fees until after you’ve fallen for a low fare and often long after you’ve booked the ticket. Trying to determine fees beforehand, unfortunately, is time consuming and frustrating.

For example, I queried Delta.com for a fare between Orlando, where I live, and Maui, and the site pulled up “total” round-trip fare of $1,611. Although the system was sophisticated enough to let me know there was only one ticket left at that price, and could calculate all taxes and airport fees, it didn’t offer the option to check a bag—just a small caveat that “there may be additional fees for checked bags.” Only by clicking to another screen did I learn that my first checked bag would cost $25 and the second bag another $35. So taking two bags there and back would cost $120. And since there are five of us, we’re talking about $600. No wonder Delta collected $733 million in baggage fees during the first nine months of 2010. How many passengers mindlessly clicked past the little warning and were broadsided later?

The good news is that consumers have some advocates on this issue besides me. A coalition of travel agencies and associations called Open Allies for Airfare Transparency is calling the airlines out. They say new computer reservations systems are making price comparisons more difficult and that airlines are duping their own customers by unbundling their fares. “Intentional obfuscation is in fact now part of the air travel landscape,” says coalition director Andrew Weinstein. “Airlines must not be allowed to profit from confusion.”

Both Congress and the Department of Transportation are considering rules that could help. In April, regulators announced they would require airlines to disclose all mandatory fees on their websites starting this summer but stopped short of requiring carriers to display an “all-inclusive” fare that incorporates optional surcharges. They promised to address the issue later. Here’s hoping regulators recognize that these so-called technological advances aren’t progress at all. Progress doesn’t make people want to bang their heads against the computer.

Contributing editor Christopher Elliott also addresses readers’ travel problems. E-mail him your story at celliott@ngs.org.

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