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Comparing airfares plus extra fees should be easier, travel managers say

Also: What exactly is a 'boutique' hotel?

July 19, 2010|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times

Since airlines began to add new fees for such extras as checked bags, pillows and food, passengers have been griping about the increased costs.

Now, some of the harshest criticism of airline fees is coming from travel managers who oversee millions of dollars in travel spending for large businesses.

The managers are frustrated that the fees are not disclosed through computer distribution systems and independent travel agencies that they use to compare airline fares and predict annual travel costs.

They have a good reason for wanting detailed information on the cost of flying.

Travel managers around the world oversee more than $340 billion in spending on business travel and meetings annually. Computer giant IBM Corp. alone spends an estimated $505 million in air travel.

Though travel managers can easily compare ticket prices on travel websites and other distribution systems, they also must consider how much it costs to, say, check a bag at Delta Air Lines ($25) or buy a snack box on United Airlines ($6). To find such information, they often have to dig endlessly through individual airlines' websites.

The growing concern over airline fees prompted an aviation subcommittee in the House of Representatives to hold hearings last week on the subject. Travel managers and consumer advocates were united in arguing that airlines should make fee information easier to find and gather.

"Helter skelter has become the rule of the day in airline pricing," Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the 300-member Business Travel Coalition, testified Wednesday.

"Consumers have the right to be presented with an accurate view of the full cost of a product," said Michael McCormick, director of the National Business Travel Assn. The group has affiliates around the globe with a combined membership of 17,000 travel professionals.

Even the government was critical of the airlines. The Government Accountability Office issued a report to the same subcommittee, calling for airlines to prominently display fee information. The agency also suggested that Congress consider taxing some or all of the airline fees.

David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn., the trade group that represents the nation's biggest airlines, said most airline fee information can be found on the airlines' websites. It's up to travel websites and distribution system operators to gather that information and provide it to consumers, he added.

"We agree with the need for fee transparency, but we already provide it through our websites," he said.

It may only be a matter of time before airlines are forced to change the way they disseminate fee information. The U.S. Transportation Department is considering adopting rules to require changes, and several lawmakers have proposed language to do the same in legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration this year.

Giving 'boutique' a solid definition

What is a boutique hotel?

While thousands of hotels across the U.S. are eager to present themselves with the title "boutique," there is no industry-approved definition.

Most people in the industry agree only that a boutique hotel is small, upscale and usually independently owned.

But an industry group recently formed in Southern California is working to define the term.

The Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Assn. announced plans last week to develop an industry standard for boutique and lifestyle hotels. The group, lead by Frances Kiradjian, the founder of a West Hills marketing consulting firm, is forming an advisory group of lodging industry leaders to create a definition that can be adopted industrywide.

One reason for forming the group, Kiradjian said, is to protect customers from being misled when they reserve a room — sight unseen — at a hotel that has bestowed upon itself the moniker "boutique."'

A standard definition, she said, would help patrons "distinguish the individual traits that lured them to searching out the boutique hotel category in the first place."

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