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Rules to Encourage Airfare Ad Disclosure May Make Things Worse

The Senate has passed its version of the long-delayed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill. One of its more interesting provisions concerns airline-fee disclosure. If the Department of Transportation acts on these rules, airline advertising could get even more confusing. This is a perfect example of good intentions gone wrong.

Federal regulations already require an enormous amount of information to be included in the fine print of airfare advertisements. There are usually several lines of disclaimers in a font so small that it's impossible to read without a magnifying glass.

Many of these disclaimers involve various taxes and fees that are or aren't included in the ticket price. For whatever reason, current rules require the inclusion of percentage-based taxes and fees, but not dollar-based ones. Go figure.

Read the fine print
Ultimately, it just means there's a ton of mice type -- and now it has the potential to get worse. Tucked away in the reauthorization bill is a requirement that airlines disclose all fees to the federal government. If the Department of Transportation so decides, then that information can also be required to be included in airfare advertising. We're not just talking about bag fees here.

Airlines look at rules like these and do whatever they can to deemphasize the fees. After all, they don't want to publicize additional costs, and they want to devote as little expensive ad space as possible to required disclosure. That means it just gets buried in the mice type.

For the feds, the goal is to try to make total cost information accessible to all travelers. That's a good thing, but that's not what happens with rules like these. They're too nebulous to really have the desired impact.

What the feds can do
If the feds really want to encourage a more clear display of information, then they should create some sort of template along the lines of food ingredient labels that will make the information more clear. The only problem is that there might be so many various fees that the table ends up taking up the entire space for the ad.

Perhaps the feds can require only a handful of fees to be displayed -- perhaps just the ones most often paid by travelers. Then there can be a disclaimer saying that other fees apply with a link to a website or a phone number for the Internet-less. And those fees can then be displayed in a more traveler-friendly manner.

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Photo via Flickr user Thoth, God of Knowledge/CC 2.0
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