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On the Spot: Government enforces new airline ticket price policy

Department of Transportation rules require advertising to show the total price for an airline ticket, and DOT is going after travel agencies that don't.

August 19, 2012|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times

Instead of the usual question-and-answer format this week, I'll address a question that's the equivalent of a bug bite on the behind for leisure travelers: Isn't anybody watching out for us?

Our business travel brethren seem to get all the love and attention from travel providers. It's not that they don't deserve it; road warriors have a tough, well, road, juggling regular work with irregular travel schedules. They get perks for the frequency with which they do this. The leisure traveler generally does not, and it does leave us feeling as though we're not Mom's favorite.

But we may be Big Brother's, if that's how you think of government.

Recent rulings against travel agencies suggest that someone is, in fact, watching out for us, and it's the Department of Transportation, whose bark and bite in consumer matters once were about as ferocious as a teacup Chihuahua's. No offense, by the way, to the dog.

In January, the DOT implemented rules that require advertising to show the total price for an airline ticket. That means the fare you see must include taxes and fees. It doesn't include ancillary fees, such as for baggage, but that's a fight for another day, and that day may be coming.

To prove that it's serious about this, the DOT last month assessed Travelocity a $180,000 fine for sometimes failing to include those taxes and fees in its flexible fare-finder tool. Just to prove it's not playing favorites, the DOT this month fined Pacific for Less Inc., a small company operating in Maui, $20,000 for advertising "prices for tour packages with an air component that did not include the entire price to be paid by the consumer.... More specifically, the advertised prices of tour packages were followed by an asterisk that referred consumers to a statement at the bottom of the page that indicated that taxes and fees were additional. Such conduct also constitutes an unfair and deceptive practice...." In its consent order, the DOT noted that Pacific "took immediate action to comply with the department's regulations and brought its website into full compliance in a very short period of time."

Pacific is basically a kitchen-table operation, said Al Anolik, a Bay Area travel attorney who represented Pacific, so I asked him whether he thought the DOT was being unduly harsh. The DOT, he says, takes size into consideration, "but they want to show that they are enforcing [the rule] across the board," adding that the DOT "did say we are not here to put people out of business."

Paul Ruden, senior vice president for legal and industry affairs for the American Society of Travel Agents, empathizes with small companies but understands that the DOT "is very serious about its new policy.... Everyone has to pay attention." In a way, he said, such enforcement "bolsters the credibility" of travel agents.

And it helps price-sensitive consumers know they're getting the real scoop — for the most part.

The other part is those ancillary fees. My other half and I just spent $100 on baggage fees for a bag each, round trip, because the hassle of getting through security and onto the plane with our rollaboards was too much to endure in the heat and humidity of the Eastern Seaboard. We didn't know how much those fees were because we didn't look, and they weren't apparent on the airlines' websites. (We knew we had to pay but didn't know how much; we could have looked at baggage fee charts online by and, among others.) But if the DOT has its way, everyone will know from the time he or she books the ticket. Is Big Bro being heavy-handed? I guess I'd prefer that heavy hand to the hand that's constantly sneaking into my pocket for more fees it wants to obscure.

Rental car update: An Aug. 5 On the Spot column ("Puzzled by Damage Claim") dealt with a reader's concern about charges for hail damage that didn't occur during the rental period, an increasingly common complaint. The takeaway from that column was to take pictures and video before you take the car. Following that advice, I photographed and took video of a car I rented in Philadelphia. This vehicle was a mess; it had scrapes and scratches inside and out. I asked the manager to note the damage in writing, to which he replied, "What for? You just took pictures." I insisted, and he complied. When I dropped off the car at another location six days later, the clerks, assessing the damage, immediately asked for the damage report, which I was happy to produce. I let them know I had pictures and video from the day of pickup, and I also took video of the car upon returning, including a few frames in which they say, "The car is fine." End of story, I hope. But just in case, I'm adding all of these photos and videos to my vacation album.

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