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Prices going up? Not really (you were already paying more)

A Southwest Airlines 737 plane taxis past the

A Southwest Airlines 737 plane taxis past the air traffic control tower at Long Island MacArthur Airport. (March 16, 2010) (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

After almost 30 years of working around a government regulation designed to allow travelers to know what they are paying for – before they actually pay for it – airlines will be forced to list prices to be paid in total, rather then offering one rate up front while placing additional fees in the fine print.

The regulation had actually been there, in some form, since the Reagan era. According to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Title 14 - Aeronautics and Space, Chapter II (Office Of The Secretary, Department Of Transportation [Aviation Proceedings), Subchapter F (Policy Statements), Part 399 (Statements Of General Policy), Subpart G (Policies Relating to Enforcement), Section 399.84 - dated Dec. 20, 1984::

“The Board [U.S. D.O.T.] considers any advertising or solicitation by a direct air carrier, indirect air carrier, or an agent of either, for passenger air transportation, a tour (i.e., a combination of air transportation and ground accommodations), or a tour component (e.g., a hotel stay) that states a price for such air transportation, tour, or tour component to be an unfair or deceptive practice, unless the price stated is the entire price to be paid by the customer to the air carrier, or agent, for such air transportation, tour, or tour component.”

In simpler terms, the government had already ruled years ago that sticking an asterisk on an advertised price doesn’t mean airlines can bury a fee where it might be missed.

But while the above-mentioned quoted statement dates back to 1984, it was published on Jan. 1, 2011, then issued on April 4, 2011 with the proclamation that due to some amendments made to 14 CFR 399.84, the rule would finally become effective Oct. 24, 2011.

The U.S. Department of Transportation had previously allowed airlines to place governmentally-imposed fees within disclaimers, but according to recent quotes released to the press by U.S. DOT spokesman Bill Mosley, the advent of Web, Twitter and Facebook advertising has spurred the Department to force companies to better define what the total cost of purchase would be. And, according to the announced enforcement, as of Jan. 26, 2012, charges for fuel, security fees and other costs (not including optional fees for things like food, onboard entertainment and baggage) must be reflected in the prices advertised by airlines, or be subject to fines otherwise.

But not all the flight companies are accepting this without a fight. For example, in pre-emptive letters sent by Allegiant Air on Sept. 23, 2010 and Feb. 16, 2011 to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation Ray LaHood, items like possible increases in fuel prices caused by the upheaval in Egypt last year and the promise of a "locked in" set fare were among the ways Allegiant hoped to stave off the ruling. The letter even mentions CFR 399.84, stating the enforcement would foster “confusion among members of the traveling public, who have been conditioned since the 1980s, by virtue of the Department's policies, to understand that the basis upon which air transportation is advertised and sold is fundamentally the same as other consumer goods and services,” then insisting that, ”The proposed change in policy would alter that basis and generate confusion. A byproduct would be weakened demand for air transportation, harming carriers directly and further disserving the public interest indirectly.”

The company, along with other challenging airlines Southwest and Spirit, has expressed the action of remaining pursuant throughout the tumult (although according to the DOT website, Spirit has already been fined $50,000 “for violating federal aviation laws and the Department’s rules prohibiting deceptive price advertising in air travel.”).

Being that taxes and fees account for close to 20 percent of the cost of an average airfare, come February, don’t be surprised if your tickets seem a bit more expensive. However, as it turns out, air travelers will really be paying what they already were paying – but this time, the reasons why will be clearer to see.

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