WASHINGTON - For many passengers, air travel is about finding the cheapest fare.
But as airlines offer a growing list of add-on services, from early boarding to premium seating and baggage fees, the ability to comparison-shop for the lowest total fare is eroding.
Global distribution systems that supply flight and fare data to travel agents and online ticketing services complain that airlines won't provide fee information in a way that lets them make it handy for consumers trying to find the best deal.
The harder airlines make it for consumers to compare, "the greater opportunity you have to get to higher prices," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.
The Obama administration is wading into the issue. The Department of Transportation is considering whether to require airlines to provide fee information to everyone with whom they have agreements to sell their tickets. A decision originally scheduled for next month has been postponed to May, as regulators struggle with a deluge of information from airlines opposed to regulating fee information, and from the travel industry and consumer groups that support such a requirement.
Meanwhile, Spirit Airlines, Allegiant Air and Southwest Airlines -- with backing from industry trade associations -- are asking the Supreme Court to reverse an appeals court ruling forcing them to include taxes in their advertised fares.
At the heart of the debate is a desire by airlines to move to a new marketing model in which customers don't buy tickets based on price alone. Instead, airlines want to mine personal data about customers in order to sell them tailored services.
"We want to be able to offer our customers a product that's useful to them, that's customized to meet their needs," said Sharon Pinkerton of Airlines for America, which represents most U.S. carriers.