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April 2009

Flying the Turbulent Skies

Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News (WECN) readers continue to tell me about their problems with the airlines. It’s been more than a year since this column dealt with airline complaints; it seemed unavailing since consumers appear to at the mercy of the airlines. The U.S. Department of Transportation has 12 auditors nationwide to respond to consumer complaints, and federal law pre-empts state consumer protection agencies from taking action on such grievances. Frustrated consumers are responding by booking fewer flights on our domestic airlines.

Readers are unhappy about the myriad of fees the airlines are assessing to tickets and the lack of information that is given about those fees at the time of booking a flight. I have long advocated for full disclosure of all fees at the time of booking. Otherwise, comparison shopping is next to impossible.

In partial defense of the airlines, many of the fees are imposed by the federal government (see Nov. 2006 “Consumer Checkpoint” column). However, airlines are now moving to “a la carte” pricing of their services in an effort to raise more money during difficult economic times. This means the companies now often assess new fees for baggage, meals or snacks, seats that contain extra legroom, and priority security screening at airports. And, as I recently learned at American Airlines, they will not easily refund the baggage fees when they lose your luggage.

There’s some hope in this regard. The airlines’ own web sites are getting somewhat better at listing fees, although the fees can be difficult to find without some significant digging. An alternative is to view a growing number of web sites that help consumers compare airline ticket fees.

One site is www.flyingfees.com. Once there, you can determine what the various airlines would charge in fees, including for such items as checked baggage, booking over the telephone, and in-flight snacks. A more commercial site is www.tripadvisor.com, which is owned by Expedia and includes a fee estimator along with airline ticket search function. The site is best-known for its listing of consumer reviews of hotels and vacation destinations. Be aware this site estimates fees only for domestic flights and for items most likely to have fees.

The Wall Street Journal reports that consumers will be able to comparison shop for airfares by the end of the year on some of the primary ticket-booking sites utilized by travel agents. We can also hope the U.S. Department of Transportation will demonstrate concern for consumers by putting pressure on the airlines to fully disclose all likely fees at the time consumers search for potential flights. 

Proposed “Oil Profits Tax” Mislabeling

This month’s WECN cover story deals with a troublesome new tax being proposed in the governor’s budget bill (Assembly Bill 75). The bill’s section title calls the tax an “Oil Profits Tax,” but that label doesn’t square with the fine-print explanation of the legislation’s true reach. You see, the tax would be placed on “gross receipts,” which means it would be also be assessed on companies that may actually be losing money on the sale of petroleum instead of making a profit. To me, this is mislabeling and I would urge the Legislature to ensure a bill’s title truly reflects what the bill actually would do. 

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