Rockefeller questions airlines on fees, privacy

Greg Nash

The chairman of the Senate committee that oversees transportation issues called Monday for U.S. airlines to disclose how they inform customers about extra fees that are added to the cost of their flight tickets and how they protect information that is collected about passengers. 

Airlines have pushed lawmakers in recent months to undo regulations that require them to include fees and taxes in quotes that they provide to passengers, arguing that the rules make it harder to separate government mandates from the remainder of ticket prices. 

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said Monday that airlines have generated millions of dollars from the fees and that customers deserved to know how much they were being charged for services that used to be included in normal ticket prices, like checked luggage.  

“Consumer advocates have underscored the importance of price transparency in light of the recent trend where airlines have increasingly been separating from base airfare and specific ‘optional’ fees for services such as carry-on bags and seat selection,” Rockefeller said in a letter to the 10 largest U.S. airlines. 

“Ancillary fees constitute a growing source of revenue for U.S. airlines,” he continued. “For example, between 2007 and 2013, total reported baggage fees rose from $464 million to $3.35 billion, and total reservation change fees rose from $915 million to $2.8 billion.” 

Rockefeller’s letter was sent to the CEOs of United, Delta, American, Southwest, US Airways, JetBlue, Alaska, Hawaiian, SkyWest and Spirit airlines. 

The West Virginia senator, who is retiring at the end of the year, called for the companies to disclose “what role do ancillary fees play in your business model, and how has that role changed over the past decade.

“In order to effectively comparison shop, consumers need clear information about specific costs of various fees that may be added to the base fare,” he said. 

“While recent DOT regulations require airlines to disclose many of these fees on their own websites, consumers have raised concerns that fee disclosures can be confusing and difficult to compare as they are often presented as ranges instead of fixed amounts,” Rockefeller continued. “Further, the relationship between certain charges — such as fees imposed when a passenger makes a reservation change well in advance of the flight — and the cost of the transaction for which the fee is assessed is not always clear.” 

Rockefeller also said he has concerns about "how airlines handle personal information that they obtain from consumers through the ticket purchase process or otherwise.

"Data collected during ticket purchase can include a passenger’s name, credit card numbers, date of birth, addresses, travel destinations, and travel companions, among other information," he wrote. "No comprehensive federal privacy law currently applies to the collection, use, and disclosure of consumer travel information. Consumer advocates have expressed concern that airline privacy policies can contain substantial caveats and that it is difficult for consumers to learn what information airlines and others in the travel sector are collecting, keeping, and sharing about them." 

Rockefeller asked to the airlines to respond to his questions by Sept. 5.