10.19.16 | USA Today
by Bart Jansen
WASHINGTON – The Transportation Department is asking for help in sorting out whether airlines withholding fares from online travel agents is unfair to travelers shopping for tickets.
The formal request for information from consumer groups, airlines and others was a little-noticed aspect of the consumer rules the department unveiled Tuesday. But the inquiry is potentially the most contentious announcement, pitting comparison web sites against airlines.
Brian Hoyt, a spokesman for TripAdvisor, said some airlines withhold fares and hinder comparison shopping at sites like his or Kayak or Hipmunk.
“Consumers deserve nothing less than a full picture of that information when making such an expensive purchase,” he said.
Steve Shur, president of the Travel Technology Association, a trade group including online travel agents and the companies that provide them fare information from the airlines, said transparency is critical for consumers because four airlines control 80% of domestic capacity.
“Ensuring that flight information is readily available in comparative search and shopping environments would be a welcome first step in protecting consumers,” he said.
But airlines insist they should be allowed to market their fares however they want. Part of the dispute about providing fare information beyond their own web sites is that companies called Global Distribution Systems, which relay the information to travel agents, charge airlines billions of dollars a year.
Airlines choose different marketing strategies. Southwest Airlines, for example, doesn’t participate in online comparison sites. Other airlines limit restrict their fares on specific sites.
The difficulty in checking prices at a specific airline’s site is the lack of a side-by-side comparison with other airlines. In another announcement Tuesday, the Transportation Department is studying whether to require airlines to include fees for baggage, seat assignments and ticket change and cancellations in the price of each ticket, to simplify comparisons.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday there’s an appropriate role for the federal government to ensure fairness. He dismissed airline warnings that requiring them to participate with more expensive Global Distribution Systems would lead to higher fares.
“Our response to that is that airlines should not use the requirement to treat their customers fairly as an excuse to further jack up prices,” he said.
“There’s nobody I can think of who isn’t rooting for their success,” he added. “But we also have this sense that those airlines – as they’re performing that service, and as they’re making a substantial profit, should treat their customers fairly.”