July 29--Consumer groups continued marshaling forces on Tuesday, a day after the House passed a bill that would allow airlines to advertise fares without all the taxes and fees included, amounting to bait-and-switch pricing, they claim.
However, the airline industry, which regularly complains about how much it is taxed, says advertising base airfares would emphasize to consumers how much of their total ticket price goes to the government.
Dubbed the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014, the new bill would reverse a 2011 rule by the Department of Transportation that required airlines to advertise and display on Internet searches full fares, including taxes and fees.
The Business Travel Coalition calls the bill "Orwellian titled" because it would make prices less transparent to consumers, who might be faced with sticker shock when they find a $239 airline booking really costs closer to $300.
The bill still needs Senate approval, and on Tuesday, consumer groups continued their objections there, writing to members of the Senate Commerce Committee.
The bill would "undermine DOT consumer protections by resurrecting a misleading and deceptive advertising practice," they wrote. "Airlines would be free to conspicuously display 'come-on' lower base ticket prices on initial screens and then dribble out information about the real, higher total ticket prices, including government taxes and fees, on other parts of their websites."
Groups include AirlinePassengers.org, Association for Airline Passenger Rights, Business Travel Coalition, Consumer Advocate Ed Perkins, FlyersRights.org, National Consumers League and Travelers United and U.S. PIRG.
However, airline industry group A4A, claims the bill enables travelers "to clearly see how much of their advertised ticket price is in reality going to Washington in federal taxes," according to a statement.
The association notes that fliers pay up to 17 different aviation taxes and fees. And with last week's rise in the Transportation Security Administration Passenger Security Fee, nearly $63, or 21 percent, of a typical $300 domestic round-trip ticket is federal taxes and fees "in disguise."
Consumer groups say that's a mischaracterization.
"Airlines falsely claim, and continue to double-down in the press, that the DOT rule forces them to bury taxes. The opposite, of course, is true. Airlines can list these amounts in an advertisement or solicitation so long as they are less prominently displayed than the total airfare," said Business Travel Coalition founder Kevin Mitchell. "Airlines can list all taxes on ticket itineraries and further remind passengers of the taxes when printing out boarding passes. They simply choose not to."
The chances of the bill, H.R. 4156, becoming law are unclear.
While Mitchell concedes it's only a matter of time before a companion bill finds a sponsor in the Senate, he contends there is little interest in passing it "because they had the time to listen to consumer and other groups. They understand how flawed HR 4156 is." If it passes the Senate, he fears it will get attached to a must-pass bill, such as reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. "If that's the case, the President may not be able to veto it," he said.
The airline association doesn't expect action before November's elections, said A4A spokeswoman Jean Medina. "Issues important to airlines and their customers will take center stage in Congress next year as the FAA's authorization is debated," she said. "The fact that the bill passed the House of Representatives sends a strong signal to legislators writing the FAA reauthorization that this issue should be included and addressed."
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