From buying groceries to filling up at the gas station, we know that healthy competition leads to lower prices. We comparison shop, especially if we are spending hundreds or thousands of dollars. And increasingly, we do that through one of our favorite apps or websites.
But when it comes to buying plane tickets, it can be a very different experience. Between fare and schedule display manipulation, new charges even for carry-on baggage, and snowballing change fees, the airlines seem to be maximizing their record profits by confusing, deceiving and exhausting the public. What’s more, it is happening at a time when there is more technological capability than ever that could simplify the process and make it more transparent, which is what surveys and studies tell us the public desperately wants.
Travelers usually find lower fares when they can quickly compare prices side-by-side in one place, as opposed to visiting each individual airline’s website. The airlines are making it harder for travelers to compare prices and schedules by blocking some of your favorite travel search and comparison resources from showing publicly available schedules and fares. Blocking easy comparison shopping can be a hidden price increase, and it has become an even bigger issue now that the four largest carriers — American, Delta, Southwest and United — control more than 82 percent of the U.S. market.
In fact, it is impossible — in most cases — to find a single website that can show you all of your choices. Why? The airlines fear that if what they have to offer is shown side-by-side against a competitor, they might lose your business. So rather than match a competitor’s lower fare, or add a nonstop flight, they withdraw from competition by blocking comparisons, no matter how deceptive and costly it is for the person trying to visit a loved one or take their family on vacation.
In this high-tech, digital, information age, the airlines want you to painstakingly investigate travel options yourself, one airline at a time, hoping you won’t find something better than what they have to offer. And it’s not because the technology isn’t able to show all your choices, or is too costly to develop, or there are legal concerns. It is simply because the airlines make more money when consumers are confused, deceived and exhausted trying to make sense of it all.
The Air Travel Fairness Coalition, a partnership of consumer and business groups and 70,000 travelers across Maine and the U.S., is fighting to bring fairness to the travel buying experience. The powerful airline industry’s deep pockets, small army of lobbyists, and other levers of influence make it difficult for small groups like ours to compete or even be heard.
But that changed a few months ago, when Sen. Susan Collins began an effort, without any fanfare or publicity, to reinstate a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) 2016 “request for information” (RFI) on airline fare and ticketing, or “distribution” practices, which we believe are attempts to restrict transparency and consumer access to public information. The airlines were first able to convince the DOT to delay this important review and then, in 2017, suspend it altogether.
In her role as chairman of the U.S. Senate subcommittee with oversight of the DOT, Sen. Collins has developed legislation that compels the DOT to resume this essential review and give consumers a voice in policymaking. It is news that the more than 58,000 individuals and groups that previously submitted formal comments will welcome.
Some of the airlines, accustomed to getting their way on just about everything, have fought back hard. But Sen. Collins hasn’t budged. She has given travelers hope that we can stop these anti-consumer, anti-competitive practices. With a DOT that seems to put airline profits ahead of the public interest, Congress is our only hope.
The affordability of air travel for millions of Americans truly hangs in the balance. An independent study showed that neutral comparison shopping resources save travelers up to $6 billion per year, and without it, 41 million people couldn’t afford to fly.
While much is written, understandably, about travelers’ growing frustration with the flying experience, consumers need to first be able to get through the buying experience if they are ever going to get off the ground. Without fast, easy comparison shopping and the downward pressure it puts on prices, a lot of travelers won’t be flying.
Re-starting the RFI will bring essential facts into the light of day and help all parties develop policies that work for travelers across Maine and the U.S.
Thanks to Sen. Collins, consumers could have a voice, and an opportunity, to help forge a system that is fair to them, too.
Kurt Ebenhoch is executive director of the Air Travel Fairness Coalition.