Transparent Airfares Act needs more transparency

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Industry experts say the new Transparent Airfares Act passed by the House of Representatives will actually make it easier for airlines to hide the full price of their fares in advertising. (Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press / December 21, 2013)

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014. Great news, right? Who doesn't want more clarity when it comes to ticket prices and fees?

Well, fasten your seat belt and put your tray table in the upright position.

The Transparent Airfares Act is one of those classic feats of legislative misdirection that does exactly the opposite of what it purports to do.

"I can't think of any other bill over the last 20 years that's as Orwellian as this," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel departments. "It should have been called the Airfare Opacity Act."

Adding to the murkiness of the bill, it was approved by the House by a voice vote, thus avoiding any official record of who actually supported it.

Air travelers have long complained that it's almost impossible to get a fix on prices because of the way airlines bury extra charges and fees in their fine print. Comparison shopping for the best fare can be an exercise in futility.

Responding to such criticism, the U.S. Department of Transportation approved a rule in 2011 requiring airlines to advertise and display on Internet searches their full fares, including taxes and fees.

"Airline passengers have rights, and they should be able to expect fair and reasonable treatment when booking a trip and when they fly," then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at the time.

Apparently the notion of fair and reasonable treatment for passengers was a bit much for the airline industry, which promptly threw its considerable lobbying clout behind efforts to undo the new rule.

The industry found a willing accomplice in Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

"Department of Transportation regulations have fundamentally and unfairly changed the advertising rules for airfares by requiring all government-imposed taxes and fees to be embedded in the advertised price of a ticket," he said while introducing the Transparent Airfares Act earlier this year.

"This common-sense bill will allow consumers to see the full breakdown of their ticket costs, so they know how much they're paying for the service, and how much they're paying in government-imposed taxes and fees," he said.

And that would be true if airlines didn't do their darnedest to obscure and hide such taxes and fees.

The reality is that the Transparent Airfares Act simply would allow airlines to go back to advertising fares the way they used to, and there's no reason to think they will suddenly bend over backward to help consumers get the best deals on tickets.

According to MapLight, which compiles data on political contributions, Shuster received $179,100 from the air transport industry between Jan. 1, 2012, and Dec. 31, 2013. No other House member enjoyed as much generosity from the industry during this period.

Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, said she doesn't expect the Democrat-controlled Senate to sign off on Shuster's legislation. But she said it's always possible it could be quietly attached to some must-pass funding bill.

And no doubt it would be called the Nothing Sneaky Going On Here Act.

Pricey privacy

The cost of privacy is going to get a little pricier for Verizon Communications customers.

The company is notifying landline customers that the fee for an unlisted phone number will rise in September to $2.50 a month from $2.25 — an 11% increase.

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