We've all seen those airline ads. "London $224," they scream in eye-catching type. Far below, in small - make that microscopic - print comes the catch: The fare is one-way only and must be booked as part of a round trip. Oh, by the way, taxes, fees and surcharges aren't included.
In fact, when you actually book the fare online, it balloons to $826. That's still a bargain, but not quite what the ad promised.
Such bait-and-switch tactics make it difficult for travellers to estimate a flight's real cost. Adding to the confusion is a rapidly growing list of hidden fees for elements once assumed to be part of the flight experience. These days, in-flight meals, pillows, blankets and advance seat selection can all carry their own price tag.
Last week, for example, Air Canada announced a new $25 fee to check a second bag for low-fare seats within North America. The six largest U.S. airlines have done the same. And WestJet says it may be next. Many passengers are wondering when they'll start seeing pay toilets on planes.
Part of the blame lies with Ryanair. Ireland's no-frill carrier keeps costs so low that chief executive Michael O'Leary says his goal is to offer all flights for free. Revenues would be earned from ancillary services.
This month, for instance, flights from London to Ireland were briefly selling for no charge except the £10 cost of the taxes and fees. But travellers wanting extras paid more: £42 to check two bags, £6 to be one of the first on board and £9.49 to take out insurance.
North America's large scheduled airlines could never adopt a free-flight model because of their high costs for unionized labour. But when passenger loads plummeted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, so-called legacy carriers such as Air Canada and United moved their pricing structure closer to that of low-cost rivals such as Southwest Airlines and WestJet. Suddenly, carriers cut meals and other frills.
Leading the pack is Air Canada. In 2003, it launched brands that each have their own amenities and restrictions. In 2006, the company also introduced an à la carte pricing structure that lets passengers pick a basic fare online, then choose the options crucial to their needs. Pick your seat in advance, add $20. Buy a snack, add $6. Take only hand luggage, subtract $3. Forgo Aeroplan points, subtract $3.
So how do airlines get away with running ads that skip over hidden mandatory fees? How much do hidden fees add to the basic fare? And what new hidden fees could be lurking around the corner?
Canada's federal government is bucking a worldwide trend by letting airlines advertise partial prices. Legislation requiring full-price disclosure has been in effect in the United States and some European countries for years and will be extended to all of the European Union by this fall.
Last year, Britain's Office of Fair Trading forced 11 carriers to revise their ads and websites to include all fixed and non-optional costs in prices. And Europe's Consumer Protection Commissioner recently gave airline and travel websites four months to stop misleading consumers on pricing.
In Canada, both Ontario and Quebec have laws requiring tour operators and travel agencies to include all taxes and mandatory add-ons in their advertising. B.C. is considering similar legislation.
Airlines using Canadian airports, however, fall under federal jurisdiction. A provision requiring truth in airline advertising was part of a bill passed in Parliament last year. But that section was removed by the Senate, which called for more government-airline talks. Nothing has happened since.
Jean Collette, chairman of the Association of Canadian Travel Agents, points to lobbying by Air Canada and WestJet for stalling the rules. Advertising a one-way fare on a mandatory round-trip ticket is like showing the price for one leg of a pair of jeans, he says. "You can't buy just the one leg."
However, Air Canada argues that it is in a competitive market and other airlines also advertise one-way base fares. "Therefore," airline spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick says, "we are forced to follow along because people often do not read beyond the headline advertising numbers for airfares."
Airlines may argue that such advertising is necessary to attract business, but that doesn't make it right, says Michael Janigan, executive director of the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre. "Almost any fraudulent or misleading practice is helpful to the merchant using it," he says.
Taxes and fees