It's good to be in the airline industry.
Profits soared last year to $12.7 billion, new U.S. Department of Transportation data reveal, as carriers charged their customers $6.16 billion alone in baggage and reservation change fees. For years, airlines have tried to hide these costs from travelers to make air travel look significantly cheaper than it really is. From purses to pets and carry-on bags to seat assignments, there are more hidden costs seemingly every time you fly.
Now, airlines want to conceal required user fees, which are collected to ensure the safety of air travel.
There is a bill swiftly moving through Congress with a misleading, Orwellian name -- the Transparent Airfares Act. It is a gimmick that, contrary to the title, is actually a bad deal for consumers by making airfares less transparent.
Under the bill, airlines and ticket sellers would be allowed to break out taxes from the base airfare and list them in a different place on their website, even in pop-up windows, in an effort to make prices look artificially low and deceive travelers about the full cost. Can you imagine if the only way to know your full airfare was to allow for those annoying pop-up ads?
It is time to get real with the American public and call the House bill what it really is: a disingenuous attempt by a powerful industry to conceal, misinform and downright hoodwink its customers into spending more than what they expected to shell out.
We may be living in the Information Age, but for passengers trying to understand the full cost of their airfare, it more often feels like the Stone Age. That is why, this week, I am doubling-down on consumer protections by introducing the Real Transparency in Airfares Act to enhance, rather than weaken them.
My legislation upholds the existing "full-fare advertising" rule that requires all ticket sellers to disclose the full airfare cost, including taxes, upfront to their consumers. This important protection helps travelers understand the full cost of their base airfare as soon as they begin shopping for flights.
To show we mean business, my bill doubles the maximum penalty for violators, from $27,500 to $55,000 a day. These tougher penalties will make unscrupulous ticket sellers think twice before they try to pull a fast one on their customers -- and pay heavily if they do so. Bottom line: Tell your customers the real cost of their airfare from the beginning, and this penalty won't be an issue.
Supporters of the House bill say it is necessary because they want customers to understand what taxes are included in their airfare.
It is a reasonable request and exactly what current law allows. These taxes are user fees that keep our runways from deteriorating, fund noise-reduction projects and maintain increased security in the wake of 9/11. This is information that passengers deserve to know and airlines have the option of listing these taxes separately -- as long as they pair that information with the full price and make the full price more prominent.
Approximately 650 million passengers who annually pass through our nation's airports are battling big airlines that are well-equipped to lobby Congress to help keep its customers in the dark. I want to lift the veil on hidden costs, level the playing field for consumers and increase accountability for air carriers and large ticket sellers.
I previously authored the Clear Airfares Act, requiring full disclosure of these fees before passengers are required to enter their personal information, but while it passed the Senate, it stalled in the Republican-controlled House. By passing the Real Transparency in Airfares Act, we can uphold our commitment to travelers and ensure that full-fare advertising requirements are strongly enforced.
I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to build support for this legislation.
Follow Sen. Robert Menendez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SenatorMenendez