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By Christopher Elliott
Maybe you've heard about the little dust-up between
Maybe you've noticed that when you go fare-shopping on those travel sites, you aren't offered any American flights.
Maybe you've said to yourself, "So what?"
"It's really an inside baseball kind of story," admits William Swelbar, a research engineer in
But not so fast. Yes, the intramural spat between airlines and travel agencies may seem irrelevant, but there's a lot at stake. The future of how you buy airline tickets could hang in the balance.
Here's what has happened: Late last year,
Actually, American insisted.
Then Sabre, one of the largest reservations systems for travel agents, retaliated by "de-preferencing"
Since then, there have been lawsuits, court injunctions -- and lots of rhetoric.
"This is a dispute over which company or travel industry sector controls price information," says Edward Hasbrouck, a consumer advocate. "But consumers' interest is in price transparency, which nobody in the industry really wants."
In other words, airlines and travel agencies are squabbling over how they show you ticket prices. Agencies want to display it their way; airlines want to show you the prices the way they want. Neither necessarily has your interests in mind, in Hasbrouck's view.
Online agencies typically show "base" airfares, minus any taxes and optional fees. They allow travelers to compare prices between airlines, but those comparisons have become increasingly difficult to make in the past two years, as air carriers have removed once-included items from the ticket price, such as checking a bag or making a seat reservation. Generally, airlines have refused to disclose these fees to travel agents in a meaningful and comprehensive way.
By withholding the fee information and waiting until the end of the reservation to disclose it, airlines stand to make more money because their tickets appear cheaper, and they can pocket all the profits from the extra fees that they charge later. Travel agencies want access to the information, and they say that they want to disclose it earlier so that they can keep their customers from being surprised by these fees at the airport. Plus, they hope to sell you the extras up front, potentially earning them a bonus or a commission.
Not so with
"We want the customer to know what the total cost of the trip is," he says.
Garner said Direct Connect wouldn't make it more difficult for travel agencies or consumers to shop for and compare American's services with other airlines.
To get an idea of what a future Direct Connect reservation might look like, Garner suggested that I take a look at American's website, AA.com.
But American's vision of transparency seems different from what the average consumer might be looking for. The website currently doesn't offer you the choice to build a fare that includes a checked bag or a meal -- instead, it reveals the fees after you've chosen your flight.
The only fee currently offered upfront is the new "Boarding and Flexibility Package," which allows you to board a flight early and offers a discount on change fees, if your flight plans change. Garner assured me that the airline was working on making all fees available right off the bat.
Jim Osborne, a vice president at the travel agency consortium Virtuoso, is skeptical of American's claims that fare comparisons will be just as easy under Direct Connect. "The proposed fragmentation that could come if each airline required you to book directly with the airline would require the agency community to drastically change the way they do business," he says. "Research would take much longer and easy comparison shopping would no longer exist."
That would be bad news for passengers, according to Andrew Weinstein, director of Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, a coalition of travel companies pushing for access to airlines fares and fees. "By trying to turn back the clock to an era of closed systems and hidden pricing, airlines risk alienating their customers and closing off the very distribution channels they need in order to succeed," he says.
But Swelbar, whose center receives funding from the airline industry, says that the change is inevitable and will save airlines money. "American's actions are an extension of the airline industry's efforts to restructure the business by cutting costs in the short term and taking increasing ownership of their respective inventories for the long term," he told me. "I think it is safe to say that airlines know their product better than some third-party vendor."
And how about travelers? I asked readers of this column whether they had any thoughts on this travel industry altercation. The response: a collective shrug. "If I never saw
But Steve Lapekas, an executive vice president at
Beyond the hyperbole and arguments, here's what should change:
The technology already exists, apart from Direct Connect, to specify which extras -- such as a checked bag, in-flight Internet connections or a sandwich -- we want with our tickets. We should be able to tell airlines or agencies what we want right up front and be allowed to compare our preferences and the final prices across all available airlines, instead of being hit with surprise fees after buying a nonrefundable ticket.
Both sides in this quarrel claim that they want to disclose a complete airfare along with optional fees as soon as possible, so they should have no objections to such proposed regulation.
Do passengers want that? You bet. The DOT recently received a letter signed by more than 50,000 passengers asking it to mandate airfare and airline fee transparency. But this might also be a good time for air travelers to remind their elected representatives that they don't like the pricing games that are being played behind the scenes and that airfare transparency should be required by law.
If it isn't, then the winner of this argument won't matter, just the losers. Which will be all of us.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine.
© CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
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