Consumer advocacy groups are raising concerns about the U.S. Department of Transportation’s decision not to pursue regulations that could have increased transparency of airline baggage fees and other add-on charges.
The federal agency last week announced it was withdrawing two notices of proposed rulemaking that were investigating possible regulations requiring airlines to disclose bag fees earlier in the booking process and provide more detailed reporting about the fees they collect.
While the rulemaking processes wouldn’t have necessarily resulted in regulations, consumer advocacy groups said the Department of Transportation’s action is the latest in a string of decisions that have leaned in airlines’ favor. It’s also another sign of a light-touch regulatory approach that has marked President Donald Trump’s first year in office.
“What they’re doing now is stepping back from that kind of (consumer) protection,” said Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, one of several groups that have criticized the decision. “It’s like the police department deciding they’re not going to investigate a crime.”
Leocha said the decision is especially worrisome because it cut short processes to study the new rules, one of which had been taking place for more than five years, before a conclusion could be reached one way or the other.
It also comes as the DOT has delayed, suspended or not acted on other consumer-centric efforts.
That includes a March decision giving airlines an extra year to comply with new reporting requirements meant to more accurately capture how many bags are lost or mishandled that were set to take effect Jan. 1.
The DOT has also not put in place rules allowing families with children younger than 13 to book seats next to each other without paying additional fees, despite Congress approving the change over a year ago.
For its part, the airline industry cheered the decision, with trade group Airlines for America commending the DOT for ushering in “a new era of smarter regulation.”
“Airlines, like all other businesses, need the freedom to determine which third-parties they do business with [and] how best to market, display and sell their products,” spokesman Todd Burke said in a statement. “We continue to believe that dictating to the airline industry distribution and commercial practices would only benefit those third parties who distribute tickets, not the flying public.”
Last week’s DOT decision targeted a pair of potential new rules.
One would have required airlines and travel agents to more clearly disclose fees for checked bags and carry-ons wherever fare and schedule information is shown. That would have given consumers the information earlier in their flight search, rather than having to advance through several steps of the booking process to find out what the total cost would be.
The other proposed rule would have required airlines to report more detailed information about ancillary fees they collect — whether for baggage, changed flights, seating assignments, early boarding or any other add-on — to the federal government.
“We respect airlines right to charge whatever they want, but we feel it should be out in the open and not in a way that deceives consumers,” said Kurt Ebonhoch, executive director of the Air Travel Fairness Coalition. “It makes it difficult for consumers to understand what the bottom-line price they’re going to pay is.”
In its justifications, the DOT said the rules could prove overly burdensome on the airline industry and suggested existing regulations already provide consumers with fee information. Both decisions also cited a January executive order from President Donald Trump requiring federal agencies get rid of two regulations for every one that is added.
Ebonhoch said increased transparency is especially important as airlines introduce new types of fares, such as the no-frills basic economy offerings from major carriers that often don’t include carry-on bags.
His group, which is backed by an array of travel groups, including online travel agencies and global distribution systems, is also pushing the DOT to restart a regulatory process it paused earlier this year that would look at how widely available fare and schedule data is and which travel websites are allowed to display it.
Leocha said consumer groups are meeting this week to discuss ways to continue the effort to improve transparency during the booking process and make it easier for travelers to know the full cost of a trip when comparison shopping.
“Our number one goal is to get DOT working again for consumers and the public,” he said.
Leocha said the issue isn’t specific to just the current administration, with a number of proposed rules, including one of the two withdrawn last week, making little process during the tail end of the Obama administration.
“We were in a situation where nothing happened … they were studying it to death,” he said. “Maybe the silver lining is they’re being honest with us. ‘We’re not going to do it’ instead of leading us on for years.”