Stretching the friendship: airlines behaving badly

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox
Illustration: Cathy Wilcox 

American consumers are as mad as hell about hidden airline fees and, to emphasise the point, they've registered a website to drive their lobbying of the US Government to change the rules that apply to airlines.

Like some of the airlines Down Under, airlines in the US can be sneaky about fees for extra baggage and a range of other charges. In the States, you sometimes don't find out about it until after you've pressed the "purchase" button online.

The Consumer Travel Alliance, Business Travel Coalition and American Society of Travel Agents on Thursday delivered a petition to the US Department of Transportation with 50,000 signatures from consumers who want airlines to spell out fees more clearly.

Thursday was the last day for public comment on proposed government rules to enhance passenger rights and make airline fares and fees more transparent.

In addition to requiring airlines to fully disclose baggage and other fees, the new rules call for refunds of fees and reimbursement for expenses when bags are lost or not delivered on time.

It’s ironic that airlines behave like the big banks when it comes to fees and generally speaking the behaviour gets worse as the ticket price gets cheaper.

Airlines would also have to give notice when baggage fees are increased, and notify passengers buying tickets whether they must pay to check up to two bags.

Predictably, the US airlines are bleating that what is being asked for is the "re-regulation" of the airline industry.

The backers of the Mad as Hell about Hidden Fees campaign say that fees can boost ticket price by 26% when one bag is checked and by 54% when a passenger checks two bags and chooses a seat with extra legroom.

Statistics from the US Transportation Department this week revealed that domestic airlines in the States are now making more than $US8 billion a year on so-called ancillary fees on everything from baggage fees to frequent-flier sales.

In Australia, changes were made about two years ago to the Trade Practices Act that outlaw most forms of lying by airlines and travel agents about air fares and add-ons. But there's still plenty of trickery and fudging of almost-hidden charges for baggage, use of credit cards and other fees.

It's ironic that, even though their industry is super-competitive, airlines behave like the big banks when it comes to fees and generally speaking the behaviour gets worse as the ticket price gets cheaper.

If, for example, you buy a Qantas ticket, you'll be whacked by a $7.70 fee per transaction for using a credit card. The actual technical cost of the transaction can be measured in cents, but Qantas gets in on the price-gouging act with the fee it is charging its customers on top of the price-gouging of Qantas by credit card companies and banks.

But I was amazed to discover this week, while I was running a dummy booking enquiry that, at the other end of the market, Tiger Airways is now charging $7.20 per sector for credit card use (unless you're one of minority that uses a particular brand of debit card). That's $14.40 for a return booking that isn't announced in text-size print until just before you purchase online.

Jetstar is charging $3.50 per sector that also isn't announced until the end of the transaction when you must nominate how you're paying.

And that's after you've had to negotiate a minefield of extras options where the "yes" box is often ticked to charge you more unless you specify "no".

The airlines will say that these options comply with the letter of the law, but, in my opinion, they amount to high-pressure selling tactics that only the bottom-feeders of the corporate world use.

I reckon you need someone looking over your shoulder when you buy an Australian airline ticket online to make sure you haven't ticked a box you shouldn't have. Yet the airlines keep harping on about giving us "choice".

I've no doubt I'll get people complaining that, if you get a cheap fare, the airline is almost entitled to behave badly.

I think that the bottom line has to be that trickery is outlawed.

Are there airline behaviours you've encountered that you think should be banned? What in particular gets up your nose? Which of the airline deals do you think represent the best compromise? Are you satisfied with the service our airline industry generally delivers?

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