Todd DeFeo

Expert: Travelers should remain alert in wake of fees, consolidation

LEXINGTON, Kentucky – From airline fees to airline consolidation, travelers remain cautious when it comes to taking trips, one expert suggests.

“I think there is good reason for travelers to be cautious these days,” Alicia Jao, vice president for travel media at NerdWallet.com, said in an interview. Former Transportation Secretary “Ray LaHood has done much for travelers’ rights; however, it remains to be seen if his replacement will continue his legacy.”

Under new regulations that took effect on LaHood’s watch in August 2011, airlines must refund fees for bags that are lost during transport. Airlines must also “prominently disclose all optional fees on their websites” while passengers who are bumped from flights are entitled to greater compensation.

In another regulation, the so-called tarmac delay rule, airlines can only keep passengers waiting on the tarmac for three hours before they must let passengers disembark. Within two hours, airlines must provide passengers with “adequate” food and water and they must also “maintain operable lavatories.”

The three-hour limit applies to domestic flights and allows for some exceptions, including safety or security and if returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations.

LaHood announced he will step down from his post when the U.S. Senate confirms his successor.

“Of course, the average traveler may not be as involved in travel industry regulation,” Jao added. “Regardless, continuous changes in fees (across all travel sectors), airline consolidation and economic uncertainty are enough reasons for travelers to remain cautious.”

In the last five years, several major airlines – Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines; Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways; and Continental Airlines and United Airlines – have consolidated. Another merger, between American and U.S. Airways, was announced in February.

Will the airline fees ever end?

But, fees remain the most contentious point for many travelers. Airlines worldwide claimed $36.1 billion in revenue in 2012 from various fees, a roughly 11 percent increase from 2011.

A recent study from TravelNerd found that airlines made a total of 52 changes to their fees during the past year. Of those changes, 36 were because of a fee increase while the remaining 16 changes  came about because of bundling (or unbundling) fees or redefining fee policies, TravelNerd found.

“The state of airline fees continues to evolve. There continues to be signs of additional airline fees, even from Southwest,” Jao said. “More importantly, changes to the structure of airline fees will be interesting to watch unfold in coming years. Airlines initially charged flat fees, more or less. Checked bags were $25 each way. Now, fees are becoming packaged so a traveler could pay for priority boarding, a checked bag, and priority security at varying prices depending the flight route. Other fees, such as premium seating and Wi-Fi, are increasingly becoming subject to flight routes, flight distances, and other factors determined by the airline.”

There are many possibilities for new fee structures, Jao added, noting that in Europe, baggage fees are determined by weight.

“I don’t think returning to one all inclusive fee is on the horizon. Quite the contrary, other travel sectors are beginning to adopt the airline fee model,” Jao said. “We are seeing more fees crop up in the hotel and cruise sectors.”

The best defense against fees: Pay close attention.

“Travelers, as with most consumers, tend to overlook the fine print,” Jao said. “Extra fees and taxes, cancellation policies, etc. in the fine print can really affect the travel experience and total trip cost. Checking the details is always helpful. I’ve commonly heard from travelers who simply book their tickets for the wrong date!”

About Todd DeFeo
Todd DeFeo loves to travel anywhere, anytime, taking pictures and notes. An award-winning reporter, Todd revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He is owner of The DeFeo Groupe and also edits Express Telegraph and Railfanning.org.