Airfare Transparency Focus of Agency Rule

     WASHINGTON (CN) - Noting that half of all U.S. air travel is not booked directly through air carriers, the Department of Transportation has proposed another regulation aimed at airfare transparency.
     The DOT issued previous consumer protections for air travelers in 2009 and 2011 that focused on issues such as excessive tarmac delays, passenger compensation related to oversold flights, and full fare quotes that include mandatory fees and taxes. The recently proposed regulation aims to build on and strengthen those protections by making it easier for consumers to make price comparisons for the entire air fare, including so-called "ancillary" charges, according to the action.
     Now, instead of having to search through confusing charts and lists at individual airline websites, the new proposal would require airlines to disclose fees for additional services such as baggage fees and seat assignment fees at "all points of sale," the DOT said in a statement.
     When finalized, the proposal would also nail down the agency's definition of "ticket agent," which includes Internet search sites and other intermediaries, "including those intermediaries that do not themselves sell air transportation but arrange for air transportation and receive compensation in connection with the sale of air transportation," the action states.
     Even search engines and websites that direct consumers to other sites for purchasing tickets, which earn compensation only through advertising sales, would be considered ticket agents under the new proposal.
     The proposed action would also strengthen reporting requirements for airlines in areas such as on-time performance, oversales and baggage-handling flubs, and it would expand the pool of carriers to include more of the smaller carriers, the agency said. The collected information is available to consumers through the agency's monthly Air Travel Consumer Report.
     The Business Travel Coalition consumer group said there is still room for improvement.
     "Consumers will benefit from greater price transparency by the Department's proposal to require airlines to provide real-time pricing of core ancillary services (e.g., for checked bags) wherever they sell their tickets," the coalition said in a statement. "However, DOT must require that ancillary fee information is disseminated to travel agents in an efficient manner that is truly usable by agents and we urge the agency to ensure that consumers can purchase these services from travel agents at the same time as an airline ticket."
     The DOT requests public comments on the proposed solutions and alternatives it is considering to address such issues as whether consumers should be able to purchase ancillary services directly from ticket agents at the time they purchase their tickets, as well as the other provisions of the proposal.
     Comments are due Aug. 21.