Airlines ask Congress to ax airfare rule
WASHINGTON — Airlines tried and failed to block a federal rule making them tell passengers up front the full cost of airfare, including government taxes and fees. So they're trying another route, asking Congress to do what the Obama administration and the courts refused to do: roll back the law.
A bill in Congress would allow airlines to return to their old way of doing things, which was to emphasize in ads the base airfare — the amount airlines charge passengers to fly — but reveal the full price including taxes and fees separately. It's backed by a bipartisan group of 33 lawmakers led by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa.
Thirty airlines spent nearly $30 million on lobbying and employed 213 lobbyists last year, according to the political money-tracking website OpenSecrets.org.
Shuster has received $64,900 in airline contributions so far in this election season, making him the top congressional recipient of airline contributions. He's also received $22,500 from air transport unions. Other sponsors of the bill were also among the industry's top recipients. "The chairman receives support from many constituencies because they support his agenda, not the other way around," said Shuster spokesman Jim Billimoria.
Before the Department of Transportation put its regulation in place two years ago, airlines and ticketing services would typically display the lower base fare in large type and show taxes and fees in small print. Consumers shopping online often weren't shown taxes and fees unless they scrolled to the bottom of the web page or clicked through several pages after selecting a flight.
The bill, supported both by the airline industry and by its pilot and flight-attendant unions, is flying through the House. It was introduced in March and approved by the transportation committee a month later without a hearing and by a voice vote, which means there is no record of who voted for or against it. The committee's entire discussion of the measure lasted 9 minutes.
The bill is "a gift to the airlines," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a transportation committee member who said he voted against it. "What you're going to see is $200 for the airfare, and then you're going to be shocked when it turns out to really be $250," he said. "It's misleading to the consumer. It's just dishonest."
Airlines say they should be able to able to advertise their fares the same way hotels, car rental agencies and other businesses do — by advertising the price of their service and adding in taxes and fees before the final purchase.
"Consumers are better served when they can buy airfares like they buy any other product," said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of Airlines for America, which represents major carriers. "I think what's confusing is to have airfares treated differently."
The measure's supporters also say the industry is overtaxed. They want airlines to be able to break out taxes and fees so that consumers can see how much of their ticket price goes to the government. The industry says taxes are about 21 percent of a typical $300 round-trip domestic ticket.
The rush left no time for consumer input, their advocates say. "We're very concerned a piece of legislation that can have such a broad effect was moved through without any consultation. I was just shocked by this," said Bill McGee, an aviation consultant for Consumers Union.
He said the title of the bill, The Transparent Airfares Act, smacks of Orwellian doublespeak since it would make airfares less transparent by allowing airlines to conceal the full purchase price.
Transportation Department officials say airlines are free under current rules to spell out taxes and fees so long as the full price is more prominent.
Opposition to Shuster's bill is beginning to surface. On Monday, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced opposing legislation that maintains the existing regulation and doubles the penalty for violating it.
Other recent regulations include allowing passengers to cancel reservations within 24 hours without penalty, and tougher requirements on disclosing bag fees and compensating passengers denied boarding because of overbooking.