Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label airlines. Show all posts
Showing posts with label airlines. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Proposed Biden rule would try again to compel airline pricing transparency; it worked out so well last time

President Biden has his own plane.
(U.S. Mission photo by Eric Bridiers CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr)
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has proposed a rule to refresh pricing transparency in the airline industry.

According to a DOT press release: "Under the proposed rule, airlines and travel search websites would have to disclose upfront—the first time an airfare is displayed—any fees charged to sit with your child, for changing or cancelling your flight, and for checked or carry-on baggage." 

For me, the new rule can't happen soon enough. At the same time, I'm doubtful we'll see much change in the opacity of the airfare market.

I'm a libertarian. But in America, libertarianism is too often confused with a radically absolutist version of laissez-faire capitalism. Libertarianism rather is about the virtues of a free market. And free markets depend on conditions that don't naturally tend to exist in the real world, including a free flow of information between buyer and seller—that is, transparency. Free markets require regulation to ensure that they remain free.

The airline industry, especially since it moved to online sales, is case in point. In the online marketplace, customers are attracted by low upfront prices. Airlines found that sales improved when the upfront price was lowered by moving some of the fare, especially bag-check costs, to add-on fees later in the purchase transaction. Southwest famously resisted bag-check fees and has capitalized on its exceptionalism, though not without costs

In the usual purchase transaction, the low upfront price is too attractive to resist. And competitors' add-ons are not always apparent until the customer has sunken too much time and money into the booking to look back. Indeed, Delta does not even allow customers to prepay bag check, so fliers are not confronted with the bag-check add-on until the day of departure.

Dollars are not the only costs that airlines can conceal from customers doing online price comparison. Inconvenient routing with multiple and lengthy layovers can cost fliers time and money down the line. Early morning and late night flight departures and arrivals can significantly increase airport transfer costs, besides risking personal security and inducing exhaustion. Seat availability can be limited, making flying literally painful for someone six-foot-five or weak of bladder. 

Negotiating these options can be grueling for the consumer, and the market can seem ungoverned by logic. For me, it is not unusual to take days, at hours per day, sifting and testing the market to get the best deal on an air itinerary. In a recent search process, I found, not atypically, that I could fly from city A to city B to city C for less than it cost to fly from city A to city B, which was my actual destination, because direct service is more desirable. But buying the cheaper fare and leaving the airport at city B is called "skiplagging," or "hidden city ticketing," and airlines can be nasty about enforcing their prohibition on it.

On the one hand, I respect the airlines' free-market discretion to charge a higher price for a direct flight than for a less desired routing. On the other hand, there is a confounding absurdity to the idea that I would find myself at home in city B, yet be obligated to board a plane to carry on to someplace I don't want to go. Courts have been hostile to airlines' efforts to penalize skiplaggers financially. But they won't stop an airline from zeroing out a customer's frequent flier miles or even banning the flier from the line.

Like radar detector technologists with speeding enforcers, airlines have played cat and mouse with private and public regulators. Search engines have become more sophisticated in allowing customers to specify parameters, such as bag checks and connections. But the providers vary in options and their efficacy. Kayak tries to help with bag-check fees; Expedia not as much. And the mere act of online price comparison might introduce costs; despite industry denials, there is some evidence that consumers trigger price increases by repeating searches on Kayak and Google.

The search engines anyway can only sort data that the airlines provide, and they are not always forthcoming with details. Some airlines shun intermediary booking sites wholly. Airlines started gaming bag-check fees in 2008. Customer frustration finally precipitated disclosure regulation in 2011.

The regulation failed; bag-check fees are not easy to find. At Frontier and Spirit, the pricing is variable, so a shopper must enter data about a specific flight to get a number that allows price comparison. Meanwhile, bag-check fees have extended to an array of options. United is among airlines that now charge for a carry-on bag, and JetBlue charges for overhead bin space.

Add to the mix that JetBlue and Spirit announced their merger in 2022, even as JetBlue defends its partnership with behemoth American Airlines in litigation with the Justice Department (DOJ). Fewer carriers never results in improved transparency or lower prices for customers. Anti-competitive conglomeration is a natural market tendency, and healthy to a point, but it must be counterbalanced by thoughtful and vigorous antitrust regulation.

Even if DOJ is successful in the present antitrust litigation, the success will be a drop in the bucket of an industry that already is far too monopolized. The United States has nothing like the peanut airlines that blanket Europe. There are legitimate reasons for that deficiency, for example, our larger land mass. But there are plenty of illegitimate reasons, too, including monopoly by air carriers and monopoly in secondary markets, such as airports, baggage handling, and the transportation infrastructure that supports transfers.

The proposed rule announced by the Biden Administration is better than nothing, if it is promulgated intact. But the rule barely scratches the surface of what's needed to move the airline industry into a truly free market, in which consumers have a fighting chance. Extrapolating from past efforts to compel the disclosure of bag-check fees, it's safe to predict that the airlines already are one step ahead, and little will change for the consumer's experience.

A free market is a transparent market with manageable entry barriers. Consumers should be able to compare prices head to head for the same services. The internet should have facilitated the free market and leveled the playing field for buyers. Instead, weak regulation has let industry run amuck and obfuscate pricing. Absolutist laissez-faire capitalism is otherwise known as corporatocracy.

 —

Presently, I'm using two different modalities to try to pursue penalty fees from airlines for flight delays I experienced in the summer under European Union regulatory jurisdiction. When I have outcomes to report, I'll blog about it.