Consumer Watchdog: Friendly skies not always so friendly

Consumer Watchdog - Christine Young | April 13th, 2016 4:00 pm

Consumer Watchdog

Christine Young

If you’re planning to fly anywhere for summer vacation, you probably know the major airlines have already hiked fares three times in 2016, even though fuel costs have dropped by at least 40 percent over the past year. Worse still, flying those not-so-friendly skies costs more if you check your baggage, change or cancel your flight, or request a seat with “extra” leg room while the airlines cram their jets tighter than a city bus at rush hour.

In other words, small courtesies and comforts, once included in the price of your ticket, have been withdrawn, and are now offered back to you – for a fee.

The good news is there might be some relief in sight. Last week, decrying airline fees as “out of control,” about a dozen consumer and traveler-advocacy groups wrote a letter to U.S. Senate leaders, urging them to add consumer protections to the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016.

The proposed protections are spelled out in the FAIR Fees Act, sponsored by Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Massachusetts, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, as an amendment to the FAA bill.

“Ancillary fees bear little to no relation to the cost to actually provide the services these fees allegedly support,” the letter said. “These add-on fees also generate significant consumer outrage.”

That’s for sure.

Gripes about airline fares are the fastest-growing category of consumer complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation, increasing 98 percent year over year.

Between 2009 and 2014, airline cancellation and change fees increased by two to five times the rate of inflation. In fact, the three largest domestic airlines all raised their cancellation and change fees from $150 to $200 within two weeks of each other in the spring of 2013.

So far, nobody has said the words “price fixing,” but the U.S. Department of Justice, in its unsuccessful attempt to stop the American Airlines-U.S. Airways merger, said “increasing consolidation among large airlines has hurt passengers. … The major airlines have, in tandem, raised fares, imposed new and higher fees, and reduced service. Competition has diminished and consumers have paid a heavy price.”

The FAIR Fees Act would prohibit airlines from charging cancellation, baggage or other fees that are “unreasonable or disproportional” to their actual costs.

I contacted the offices of Pennsylvania’s senators — Robert Casey, D-Scranton, and Patrick Toomey, R-Zionsville — asking if they support the FAIR Fees Act, which got bipartisan support in the Senate Commerce Committee. Neither of the senators got back to me by publication deadline, so perhaps they’re still trying to decide.

If you’re among the millions of people who are sick of getting squeezed just to visit your grandchildren or take a much-needed vacation, give the senators a call and put the squeeze on them to support the FAIR Fees Act.

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