Lawmakers blast airlines for extra fees

WASHINGTON - U.S. lawmakers are taking airlines to task over the ancillary fees associated with flying, accusing carriers of keeping consumers in the dark over the real cost of air travel.

A Senate committee report urges the Transportation Department to crack down on unfair or hidden airline fees for things like seat reservations, checked baggage and ticket changes or cancellations.

"The traveling public is being nickel-and-dimed to death," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., in a statement. "What's worse is that many flyers don't learn about the actual cost of their travel until it's too late."

At issue is an investigation by the Democratic staff of the Senate Commerce Committee. Their report says there appears to be no justification for checked bag fees other than increased profit. The report recommends that any bag fees be tied to actual costs incurred by an airline.

The report also says that in most cases, airlines charge fees for changing or cancelling a ticket, no matter how far in advance of a flight the changes are made. And it criticizes airline websites that mislead consumers into believing they have to pay an extra fee to obtain a seat.

Extra charges on baggage, food, preferred seating, Wi-Fi, entertainment and other services have risen substantially over the last five years, according to the Senate panel. Fees for changing or cancelling tickets have also outpaced inflation.

Citing a study by consumer research firm IdeaWorksCompany, the committee said that between 2007 and 2014 the amount of revenue airlines generate from ancillary fees has soared some 1,400 percent, from $2.4 billion to $38.1 billion. Over that time, baggage fees rose from $464 million to $3.5 billion.

Change and cancellation fees more than tripled to $2.9 billion. For domestic flights, those charges typically run between $60 and $200.

"Change and cancellation fees present particularly compelling transparency concerns because they are not only one of the most costly categories of fees for consumers, but also, unlike most other fees, they are generally not optional for the consumer."

Seven of eight airlines surveyed by Senate researcher charge fees between $20 and $30 for the first checked bag, with only Southwest Airlines applying such a charge.

The Senate panel is urging airlines to better disclose fees, promptly refund fees for bags that are delayed more than six hours on a domestic flight and limit charges for changing tickets, among other recommendations.

Carriers have attracted unwanted attention from Washington in recent months. The U.S. Department of Justice said last month it is investigating whether major airlines are violating antitrust law by colluding to keep prices artificially high.