The 3 Hidden Gotchas of Airline Advertisements

What happens when an airline quotes you one fare in a commercial, then charges a whole lot more when you go to book your flight? Thankfully, airlines have to pay a price for such untruths. The U.S. Department of Transportation has increased enforcement of rules requiring airlines to provide accurate information to travelers in advertisements. The DOT has fined 26 airlines for violations in 2011, to the tune of $3.4 million.

DOT rules require that advertising must include the full price to be paid by the customer, including all surcharges imposed by the airline. Airlines do not have to include government fees that are calculated on a per-person basis, such as passenger facility charges, but these fees must be disclosed in advertisements as well. Furthermore, ads must identify the $2.50 Sept. 11 security fee paid by every passenger boarding a plane at a U.S. airport. This fee applies to foreign airlines as well.

Typical airline advertising “gotchas” that FareCompare readers should look for involve three types of violations:

  1. Failure to disclose airline-imposed fees and taxes
  2. Inaccurate information about compensation for lost or damaged luggage
  3. Neglecting to include fuel surcharges in published fares.

The Airlines (and Ads) in the Dog House

Here are five recent cases of violations that resulted in DOT fines for airlines.

Air Canada: $50,000

Air Canada displayed ads on its websites in 2011 that did not disclose taxes and fees in addition to the advertised fare, nor did it provide a direct link to the information about the taxes and fees. Fees were instead displayed in fine print at the very bottom of the web page.

United Airlines: $20,000

United was fined for giving passengers inaccurate information about how much compensation they were eligible for in the event of lost, damaged or delayed luggage on international flights. Since 2009, airlines are liable for these damages up to an amount pegged to 1,131 Special Drawing Rights per passenger under the Montreal Convention. This comes out to around $1,800. But United continued to hand out ticket wallets printed with the old limit of 1,000 Special Drawing Rights. There was no evidence that United used the old liability limit when handing international luggage-related claims, however

Continental: $120,000

The DOT found that Continental’s website did not include fuel surcharges in listed fares. As one example, a fare from San José, California to El Salvador was listed as $298 on the first two pages of information. Once the fuel surcharge was added, on page three, the total fare price was $538

US Airways: $45,000

US Airways’ website, according to the DOT, advertised a fare to Rome for $659, tagged with an asterisk to denote extra fees and taxes. However, no further details were provided on those fees and taxes

China Airlines: $80,000

The DOT fined China Airlines $80,000 because they did not include various fees in their advertised prices listed on their website for a period of time

While you should always read the fine print when booking those cheap tickets, the DOT’s recent enforcement actions are designed to make the terms of your travel clearer up front. That is good news for all of us travelers.

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Published: September 6, 2011