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On the Spot: Those pesky air ticket add-ons

Los Angeles Times Travel Editor

Question: I have been shopping for fares to London. indicated a price of $688, which excluded taxes. When I clicked "book," the price was nearly $900. When I go to British Airways, Travelocity or Orbitz, it clearly indicates "excluding taxes and fees." Doesn't that seem more honest?

--Tina Yates, Los Angeles

Answer: Answer: For now, let's substitute the word "clearer" for "more honest." We would not want to impugn the integrity of a travel provider. At least, not this high in the column.

In 2009, taxes added almost 17% to a ticket price, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report issued in January. That's not surprising when you consider such pesky add-ons such as passenger facility charges (as much as $18, depending on where you're going), federal segment fees ($3.20 for each U.S. flight segment), a Sept. 11 security fee ($2.50 for each flight segment) and fees for non-U.S. destinations (as much as $200). What? Those sound like taxes and not fees? You can call them whatever you want, but they still add up, and you can't do anything about them, much like the only other thing that's certain in life. Foreign governments consider passengers good sources of revenue too, so they have joined in the levying fun over the years.

Anyone buying airfare these days also usually has other fees — what I call the "convenience fees" — to contend with: baggage fees, priority boarding fees, change fees, fees for making a reservation by phone, fees for booking online, fees for extra legroom and on and on. You need a scorecard to track them.

That's because, by and large, booking sites — whether an online travel agency, a metasearch site such as Kayak or an airline's own site — don't always do a good job of showing you the bottom line. That is being charitable, but for now, we won't come right out and call them duplicitous dirtbags.

That (lack of transparency, not the dirtbagginess) will change in the coming months and may change even more, said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Leocha and others have been working with the Department of Transportation as well as Congress to encourage new regulations that would make airline ticket pricing crystal clear. The DOT issued some proposed regulations last week that will require websites to disclose all taxes and fees clearly (although the convenience fees need be shown only on an airline's website and not as part of the fare). Leocha was hoping the DOT would mandate airlines to compute all taxes, fees and charges as part of the airfare price to allow a more complete comparison across a spectrum of airlines. He is hopeful the DOT will come out with such a ruling by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, the Senate version of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act contains an amendment that calls for airline ticket transparency. The House version of the FAA bill does not contain that language. These bills are to go to conference committee next month.

We're not saying the airlines shouldn't charge convenience fees, and we're not saying governments should not charge taxes. (We're not saying they should, either, but that's another story.) But telling someone how much something is going to cost upfront? Now that's the honest way to do business.

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