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New rule on advertised airfares begins -- and Spirit isn’t happy

<i>This post has been updated. See below for details.</i>

If airfares seem a little higher than usual, it’s not because the airlines have raised their prices. The Department of Transportation’s long-awaited new rules on what airlines can advertise as posted ticket prices go into effect Thursday. I think of it as the “no surprises” rule.

The biggest change: Published airfares (online, on billboards, in print, over the phone) must include all taxes and fees. The idea is that consumers looking for the lowest airfare won’t be misled by super-low prices that increase exponentially after fees and taxes are added on.

The rule applies to airlines, ticket agents and online travel booking sites like Expedia, Orbitz, etc. Kayak, however, already publishes the total cost of airfares on its site.

Here’s how online travel site BookingBuddy explained it to customers: “Fares will appear to be $20–$40 higher while you are searching for domestic travel, but you shouldn’t see that surprise bump from taxes and fees before you book.” In other words, the taxes and fees that used to be added on at the end of a transaction will now be posted up front.

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Feisty budget carrier Spirit Airlines last year was fined by the DOT for deceptive pricing when it advertised $9 tickets from L.A. to Las Vegas. On its website Thursday, Spirit claims the government is forcing airlines to “distort” airfares by “hiding” taxes and fees in the price of a ticket.

[Updated, 12:45 p.m. Jan. 26: California Sen. Barbara Boxer called on Spirit Airlines Chief Executive Ben Baldanza on Thursday to remove from its website what she characterizes as misleading information about the new DOT rules. In a letter, Boxer said she was “shocked by the failure of your airline to tell the truth in an email sent to your customers earlier this week as well as warnings posted on Spirit.com ...”]

Pricing disclosures aren’t the only changes that will benefit consumers. Here are more new airline rules that went into effect this week.

--All baggage fees, which aren’t included in airfares, must be disclosed. (Airlines that haven’t already had a separate online Web page listing their baggage fees are doing so.)

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--Passengers will be able to hold a reservation for 24 hours without having to pay for it.

--Also, customers will be able to change a flight within 24 hours without penalty (some airlines and online booking companies already had such policies).

--Airlines won’t be able to raise ticket prices after the ticket has been purchased.


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