Government should force airlines to clearly disclose fees, report says

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Americans are paying billions in additional fees to fly, and they deserve to know what we're paying for upfront and in an easy-to-read format, the Government Accountability Office declared in a report this week.

In a call for full disclosure from the airlines about how much that extra blanket or checked bag is actually adding to the final ticket price, the government watchdog echoed what the Department of Transportation proposed in June. Tacked-on fees for meals, early boarding, seat selection and other proliferating options "are not fully disclosed through all ticket distribution channels used by consumers, making it difficult for them to compare the total cost of flights offered by different carriers," the report said.

If it takes lawmakers to mandate an easy-to-read list of all fees at every point of purchase, as The National Business Travel Association suggested to Congress, according to USA Today, then let the arm-twisting begin. The airlines won't act on their own because clearly posting all charges would make them less competitive, the Accountability Office wrote. Each ticket would carry a higher true price, discouraging Web users from clicking further.

A representative for many of the major airlines told the newspaper the jet biz is already doing a "comprehensive" job of clarifying its fees. Meanwhile, there's no disputing that they're profiting from them. Carriers raked in $7.9 billion in 2008 and 2009 from baggage, reservation and cancellation fees, and generated $1.3 billion in additional charges through the first quarter of 2010, according to the report. Apparently none of the revenue is making baggage-handling any better or flights more civilized. The rate of mishandled or misdirected baggage appears to have risen per 1,000 pieces of luggage, the office said, and the jostling for carry-on space has become a prime concern of flight attendants.

The report also attempted to clear the air on accounting matters that indirectly affect passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration wants its share of the extra money we're shelling out in fees, the GAO pointed out. A lot of the newer fees such as Wi-Fi availability are not subject to the 7.5% tax the IRS imposes on airline revenue that helps to fund the FAA because the IRS declared that they don't involve getting us from point A to point B. Less money for the FAA could mean less effectiveness on the part of domestic air's governing body. Bad news for all of us.

In its attempt to clear the air on the airlines' increasing mode of tacking on charges and being awfully coy about them, the GAO made its case for legislative pressure to get real change off the ground. Otherwise, cash-strapped airlines will continue to conceal their expanding menu of a la carte charges. Concluded the report: "Airlines are not likely to disclose them unless compelled to do so."
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