Supreme Court Upholds ‘What You See is What You Pay’ Airline Ads

The U.S. Supreme Court in effect said “no” to airlines asking for a return to the days of advertising airfares without all taxes and fees included.

Airline Ads: Funny, Hip, Snarky

Price You See is What You Pay For

Until January of last year, airlines could prominently display pre-tax prices – which Spirit Airlines enthusiastically embraced as it allowed them to advertise their famous “$9 airfares.” However, the practice often resulted in a nasty case of sticker shock for airfare shoppers when it they neared the end of the transaction and saw a much higher total bill with airfare and  taxes and fees lumped together. This led to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s call for new passenger protections – including full fare advertising – which were unveiled in 2012. LaHood referred to the new rules as a matter of “treating passengers fairly.”

Spirit: Ads on Barf Bags

Spirit Opposed ‘Full Fare’ Ads

Spirit (joined by Allegiant and Southwest) argued that the new rules prevented them from exercising their right to free speech. These arguments, presented in court papers, claimed the airlines’ right to draw “clear and conspicuous attention to truthful information about the significant tax burden on airline tickets” was hindered by the new rule. However, once the new rule went into effect, it didn’t hinder Spirit from slapping all its passengers with a brand new $2 fee called the “Unintended Consequences of DOT Regulations Fee” (a one-way fee that is still on the Spirit website).

At the Supreme Court, however, the airline arguments went nowhere as the justices let stand what the U.S. Solicitor General describe as “a quintessential consumer-protection regulation.”

24-Hour Change-Your-Mind Policy Stands, Too

The airlines lost another skirmish in the battle against the “passenger protections”; the court also let stand the rule that allows shopper penalty-free cancellation of reservations for 24 hours.


Updated: November 16, 2015