Easier-to-read information in airline ads on issues such as seat availability and restrictions on discount fares should start appearing soon as a result of new guidelines created by a task force of attorneys general from 40 states, including California.
The guidelines, designed to cut unfair and deceptive practices by airlines, also cover frequent-flier programs. The attorneys general got into the act because such issues were not addressed by federal agencies, which instead focus on airline safety, on-time performance and scheduling problems.
Guidelines, adopted by the National Assn. of Attorneys General, went into effect Jan. 15. As a result, airlines must put their ads in order by April 15.
However, the guidelines suggested by the attorneys general may be challenged. The carriers claim that only the federal government has the right to regulate airlines.
"We were disappointed in these guidelines as they fail to respond to legal and practical arguments against them," says Bill Jackman of the Air Transport Assn. in Washington.
The guidelines have been sent to the airlines for review. "The individual carrier will decide whether or not to go along with them, " he added.
However, not all states are going along with the guidelines, which will be enforced under state statutes.
Existing State Codes
"If airlines advertise in California, we have jurisdiction," says Duane Peterson of the state's attorney general's office in Los Angeles.
Peterson believes guidelines don't create new laws. Instead, they come under the state's existing business and professions code and place the airlines under the same laws that affect other businesses.
Computerized marketing techniques, the introduction of non-refundable tickets and airline changes in frequent-flier programs were instrumental in forcing the guidelines.
Computers allow airlines to change the number of seats available at a given fare at any time, from about one year before the flight until the boarding gate closes. Ads tend to cite low fares in big type and conditions or restrictions in small print at the bottom.
And the airlines aren't doing enough to inform the public of the risks of buying non-refundable tickets, and of the limited availability of these tickets, the attorneys general said.
Guidelines will get travelers information on three key subjects.
1) Eligibility: Can the consumer comply with advance purchase or other restrictions affecting time or date of travel?
2) Availability: Can passengers accurately gauge the chances of buying a ticket at the advertised fare?
3) Risks: What about non-refundability and cancellation penalties?
Carriers are being told to print statements on restrictions at least one-third the size of the largest type in their ads.
This particular guideline could lead to smaller headlines. "It borders on the ridiculous to make information on restrictions one-third the size of the largest type in the ad," Jackman says.
Or the airlines can place restriction information in a box clearly identified or adjacent to the fare price. Restrictions can be in the same type size as the rest of the information in such a section of the ad.
Ads also must disclose information such as limited-time availability (time of day or day of week), length of stay, advance purchase, refunds or ticket exchange, round-trip purchase, variations in fares to and from two or more airports serving the same metropolitan area and extra charges for itinerary changes.
The carriers also have to state in their ads: "This fare may not be available when you call" or "This fare is not available on all flights" if the airline doesn't expect to have enough seats per flight to satisfy a "reasonably" foreseeable demand each day the ad runs, and for three days after the ad stops. Simply saying "seats limited" and "restrictions apply" will no longer work.
What constitutes a "reasonable" demand is the question, particularly with quickly changing airline pricing. The attorneys general, however, believe that airlines, like other retailers, should have sufficient seats available to meet any reasonable demand for an advertised fare.
Another present airline practice is to advertise a one-way fare in a headline, with a round-trip restriction in smaller type. This will also go by the wayside.
Airlines now have to state the round-trip fare as prominently as the one-way fare. Additionally, all surcharges have to be included in the advertisement.
Inducements such as discount, sale or reduced can only be used if the fare is available for a specified, limited period and is well below the regular fare.
Commercials have to include how long the advertised fare will be available and limitations on refund and exchange restrictions. Passengers also must be told of any other key restrictions before the airline takes a reservation.