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By Christopher Elliott
How much does your airline ticket really cost?
Admit it, you have no idea. Once you add the cost of a checked bag, a confirmed seat reservation and a day-old turkey sandwich, you'll pay more than you expected. A lot more, probably.
Not so long ago, ticket prices included all of the above. But thanks to an industry trend called unbundling, many airlines are now stripping everything away from the ticket but the cost of your seat.
It's a wildly successful scheme: Domestic airlines collected an astounding $7.8 billion in ancillary fees last year, up 42 percent from 2008, while keeping their base fares artificially low. (Legacy airlines still managed to lose $2.8 billion, somehow.)
But passengers are confused and angry about being nickel-and-dimed. Finally, help is on the way.
An amendment to the current
A second project, which has just entered the test phase and should roll out by the end of June, is called TruPrice. The site will allow you to check all optional items before you conduct an online fare search, offering the ability to see the real cost of a ticket and compare ticket prices side by side.
Christopher Muise, a former corporate compliance manager for and president of the Atlanta start-up, said that his development team has already identified 39 unique airline fees -- surcharges for everything from luggage to antlers. (Yes, antlers.
"Right now, if you want to know how much your ticket costs, you have to use a calculator," he said. "You also have to know where to look: Each airline has its own way of describing fees, and they are not always clearly disclosed. People are frustrated."
Muise allowed me to evaluate TruPrice before its introduction, and I conducted several test searches. At any time after I generated the results, the site let me check or uncheck a fee, instantly recalculating the "true" price of the ticket.
TruPrice has a lot of potential, but like InsideTrip's FinalAirfare, it is far from done. A sample fare from New York to Atlanta, for example, correctly identified
Still, considering that the company didn't exist before March, the site is an impressive achievement. And when it launches, TruPrice will almost certainly change the way we buy airline tickets.
If there's a sentiment underscoring the recent rule changes and private ventures, it's this: Air travelers have the right to know how much their tickets cost, and the way prices are quoted must change now.
As airlines generate revenue by telling their customers half-truths -- and apparently get away with it -- there's a sense of urgency to these initiatives. Maybe it's because airlines are just getting started with unbundling.
"We're waiting for them to start charging for air," said Muise.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine.
© U.S. Christopher Elliott, The Travel Troubleshooter
Travel | Airline Fees: The $7.8 Billion Question