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  • Hidden Fees: Exhibit A (And B)
    Posted by Andrew Compart 5:15 PM on Jun 03, 2011

    Groups who argue airlines hide their fees from consumers could use Delta's June 1 increase in change in checked bag fees as Exhibit A. The U.S. Transportation Department could do the same in bolstering the case it already made for mandating that airlines more prominently and clearly let customers know when their baggage fees are changing.

    The new DOT rules do not take effect until late August, but as a reminder, here is what they require and why the DOT said they are needed.

    Under the new rules, U.S. and foreign carriers must "promptly and prominently" disclose changes in baggage fees and baggage allowances on their homepage for three months. In a concession to airline concerns about micromanaging of website displays,  the department says the airline can provide that notice with a conspicuous and clear hyperlink to the fee changes. The link must be "directly to a pop-up or a place on another webpage that details the change in baggage allowance or fees and the effective dates of such changes."

    "The department feels that this rule will prevent passenger surprise about changes in baggage fees or allowances," it said when it published its second round of "passenger protections" on April 25.

    Now let's take a look at how Delta reveals the latest changes in its baggage fees on its website. On the homepage, on the bottom right, there is a link that says:

    Get the latest updates on new fees and allowances.

    That link does not really alert anyone that the fees just changed--it's more like a permanent marker that is easy to gloss over. And if you click on that link, what do you see? Yes, it does take you to a page that shows you the checked bag policies, but that page does not explain what has changed. Nor does it tell you that that some of these fee policies and amounts do not apply for a customer that purchased his or her ticket before June 1.

    To find out what the baggage fees used to be, if you even know to do that, you have to be alert enough to spot the selection list below "checked baggage" on the left-hand side. One of those choices is "previous checked bag fees." Click on that, and you'll see a page that lists those fees, noting that most of the rates and rules apply to tickets purchased before June 1.

    Even at this point, the consumer would be hard pressed to figure out what the changes were. To do that, he or she would need to print out the page with the previous fees and policies and the ones with the new fees and policies. Or the consumer could hope to run across a news story about the changes in fees (there is no Delta press release), in which the reporter noticed the change or got tipped off about the change and called Delta to find out exactly what happened.

    I don't think that's what the DOT has in mind.

    United does better with the baggage fee increases it implemented the same day. United's home page has a link, under "travel information," for "updates to baggage policies." Clicking on that link takes you to a baggage policy page with a big and prominent note at the top about where it revised the fees and weight limits. In fact, that note appears at the top of all of the bag fee and policy pages. Now take a look at its page for "international checked baggage." It shows the fee for tickets purchased before June 1 and the new, higher one for tickets purchased after June 1--clearly identifying where the change has occurred.

    But Continental, one of the two airlines that make up United Continental, is even worse than Delta. It has no notice on its home page of a change in its bag fees, although it just made one. To figure that out, the user would have to put the cursor over "travel information" to get the pull-down menu, click on "baggage information" and click on the "fees" link in the "checked baggage" category. Then, on the checked baggage fees page, the user would need to notice the footnotes underneath the chart to figure out what has just changed (even worse, as of 1 p.m. Eastern Time on June 3, Continental appears to have forgotten to link ** footnote is not linked to any actual numbers in the chart).

    Hmmm. Perhaps Continental should be Exhibit A.

    Tags: tw99, Delta, United, Continental, bags, fee

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