U.S. Judge Says Airlines Have to Stop Lying to Us

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Soon airlines will have to show real prices and stop hiding taxes and mandatory fees from the fares you see online. But optional fees like baggage can still nail you.

Booking flights online has always been a frustrating shell game. But fares are about to get a little more fair.

If you’ve ever used a price-comparison website for air travel, you know exactly what I’m talking about: You see a surprisingly good rate, click through to the airline’s site to book the deal – and find the price suddenly jumps up as much as 20 percent. Why? Taxes and hidden fees.

After going through the process a few more times, you get annoyed, and your computer keyboard takes a beating as you book the higher fare. (Maybe I’m projecting a bit here.)

And that’s before airlines hit you with ever-increasing optional fees for bags and everything else. Did you know Spirit Airlines now charges $30 for your carry-on, and Allegiant charges $35 (per segment, not per way!) unless you pay the fees before getting to the airport?

That nonsense is going to stop – with base fares, if not the bag fees. Last year, the U.S. Transportation Department made a rule that airlines have to start advertising the true basic cost of a flight, and they can’t hide unavoidable fees. Spirit, Allegiant, and Southwest challenged it in court, but on Tuesday they got smacked down.

Federal judge David Tatel is clinically blind, but he can still spot a raw deal. Ruling that airlines need to be more honest with their price tags, he said the evidence “sufficiently support[s] the intuitive conclusion that customers are likely to be deceived by price quotes significantly lower than the actual cost of travel,” according to Reuters. In other words: Duh, airlines, you’re being misleading and need to cut that out now.

The court also ruled against Allegiant and Spirit on two other issues, upholding a recent requirement that customers can cancel tickets with no penalty up to a day after purchasing if they bought a week in advance, and blocking airlines from raising costs like baggage fees after a customer has bought tickets.

The airlines are “disappointed,” but I think they can afford a private self-pity concert from the world’s smallest violins. According to one estimate released this week by IdeaWorksCompany, the industry has increased its fee revenue nearly tenfold in the past five years – from $2.45 billion in 2007 to $22.6 billion in 2011. Government data shows U.S. carriers had an operating profit of $10.5 billion in 2010 and $7.1 billion last year.

While this ruling will help consumers find better prices, the “optional” fees for baggage aren’t included. Since most people travel with, you know, stuff, it’s helpful to know where to find free bags and flat fees – instead of going with an airline that nails you exponentially harder for each additional bag. Here’s a list of who charges what for the major carriers…

Airline Carry-on 1st 2nd 3rd
AirTran Free $20 $25 $50
Alaska Free $20 $20 $20
Allegiant (per segment, not per way!) $35 (up to $30 online) $35 (up to $35 online) $35 (up to $35 online) $50
American Free $25 $35 $150
Delta Free $25 $35 $125
Frontier Free $20 $20 $50
Hawaiian Free $25 $35 $125
JetBlue Free Free $40 $75
Southwest Free Free Free $50
Spirit (will raise rates in Nov.) $40 ($30 online) $38 ($28 online) $45 ($35 online) $95 ($85 online)
US Free $25 $35 $125
United Free $25 $35 $125
Virgin America Free $25 $25 $25
Stacy Johnson

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