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AARP Urges Regulators to Improve Disclosure of Hidden Airline Fees

Such fees are a growing part of the cost of airline travel

AARP is calling on the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to quickly finalize and strengthen a new rule on hidden airline fees, such as those assessed for changing or canceling a flight, seating a young child next to an accompanying adult or checking additional luggage.

The regulation the DOT has proposed would ensure these hidden fees are disclosed when a fare or schedule is first provided to consumers. It also would require airlines to allow passengers traveling with young children to buy adjacent seats at any point in the purchase process. Additionally, it would require airlines to provide the current and accurate fee schedule to ticket agents who sell or provide fares and schedules.

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“AARP strongly supports improving disclosures of these fees to help consumers make informed decisions about their airline travel and avoid costly surprises,” David Certner, AARP legislative counsel and legislative policy director, says in a letter sent Jan. 23 to attorneys in the DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection.

AARP backs the proposal because, with a lot of pent-up demand to see family, many older adults are planning to travel by air, says Debra Alvarez, AARP’s government affairs director for livable communities. “When they’re making plans for air travel, they’re comparing prices, and the ability to see clearly what fees are up front is essential to an informed decision.” She adds: “It takes a lot of effort to be sure you’ve captured the many fees involved in the final price, in regard to baggage, cancellations, changes of plans and seating with family. All of that is important to the enjoyment of the trip and the bottom-line cost of your travel.”

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Fees for bags, seats and changing flights can add up.

  • Baggage fees: Prior to 2008, luggage could be checked for free. Now travelers are paying around $30 for the first bag and $40 or more for additional bags on most U.S. carriers, with the exception of Southwest Airlines.
  • Seat assignment: According to an analysis by NerdWallet, Delta charges $15, on average, each way for seat selection; American charges $19. Frontier, the discount airline, charges an average of $23 per one-way flight.
  • Change fees: If you need to cancel a flight or change your flight time, expect to pay a change fee. Many full-service carriers have abandoned this fee in the past couple of years, but there’s a catch: If you are purchasing a basic economy ticket and want to make a change, you’ll pay for the convenience.

In December, the DOT extended the deadline for commenting on the new Enhancing Transparency of Airline Ancillary Service Fees rule. In its proposal, the department said the rule “would significantly strengthen protections for consumers by ensuring any fees charged to seat a young child with an accompanying adult, change or cancel a flight, or travel with a first checked bag, a second checked bag, or a carry-on bag would be disclosed whenever fare and schedule information is provided for flights to, within, and from the United States.”

Through the first three quarters of 2022, 14 airlines collected nearly $5 billion in baggage fees alone, according to the DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. During that same time period, it said, 11 airlines collected $697 million in cancellation and change fees. While there are some ways to avoid baggage, seat and change fees, you can’t always get around them.

“Given the increasing significance of ancillary fees to the cost of air travel, they should be subject to strong consumer protection standards,” Certner says in the letter, citing AARP’s consumer protection principles: ensure choice; promote fair play and practice; foster transparency; and promote access. He adds that the proposed rule relating to ancillary fees would meet the principles.

In suggesting the proposal be strengthened, AARP advises reviewing “airlines’ consumer practices more comprehensively.” While acknowledging that some fees may be necessary, AARP says the high fees “do not promote affordable access to travel by air” and should be eliminated or reduced where possible.

In the letter, AARP suggests eliminating fees for reserving adjacent seats. In expanding on that, Alvarez says, “The charges to have separate fees for families to sit together is problematic.” If a grandparent traveling with a grandchild is unable to sit with that child without paying a fee, she says, it “could be anxiety provoking.”

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In pushing for the DOT proposal, AARP wants the process to be simpler.

“It’s important for [them] to make the process as transparent and easy to navigate as possible,” Alvarez says. “It’s important for fees to be disclosed right up front — the first time you’re checking for a price, and also that if you’re not checking online, you should still receive the same information as those checking online.”

AARP’s letter recommends swift implementation. 

“We believe that this rule should be finalized and implemented quickly so that the benefits of fee disclosure can be extended to travelers as soon as possible. … Six months, as proposed in the NPRM, appears to be a reasonable amount of time and should not be extended,” notes Certner.

Contributing: Donna Fuscaldo, AARP

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