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Plan would make airlines clearly show add-on fees


On one of the surcharge days yesterday, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said he would reintroduce legislation that would ensure customers get a clear breakdown of holiday surcharges and all add-on fees, including for baggage, meals and pets.

Standing in Terminal B at Newark Liberty International Airport, Menendez said customers have to click through peripheral web pages and wade through often confusing text to understand whether their airfare includes the surcharges.

"Trying to navigate through the different components in your airfare is like an airline pilot trying to land a plane in a thunderstorm without electronic instruments or a map," he said. "It's technically possible, but it sure isn't easy."

Other days when the surcharges are in effect this holiday season are, depending on the airline, Dec. 18-19, Dec. 23, Dec. 26-27 and Dec. 30.

The legislation, which Menendez termed the Clear Airfares Act, calls for fees, charges or surcharges to be disclosed in a straightforward manner before customers have to input their name and credit card information.

Reservations by phone can add up to $35 per person. Bags that need to be checked can run the customer from nothing to $35 per bag. Priority seats that provide extra leg room can run the customer from nothing to $109.

Mike Boyd, an aviation analyst based in Evergreen, Colo., said airline fares are about 13 percent lower nationally than they were at this time last year and that making up the difference through surcharges is more fair to individual customers than raising fares.

"I don't check my bag, why should I pay for your bag?" he asked.

The average cost of a flight at Newark Airport for the second quarter of 2009 decreased by more than 16 percent, from $243.35 last year to $203.87 this year.

Boyd acknowledged that adding individual user fees means "more moving parts for the customer, but to imply gouging is cheap."

Boyd said one of the fees -- a $4.50 passenger facility charge -- is to make up for monies that were put into a trust fund to rebuild airports, but spent elsewhere by Congress.
In an era of automated teller machine surcharges, sporting event "facility fees" and concert ticket "convenience charges" paid for each ticket when only one envelope needs to be used, Newark Airport customers interviewed yesterday said more transparency would be welcome.

Patricia Murray of Manhattan, a fashion illustrator arriving to the airport after a three-week trip to Europe, said her ticket wasn't expensive at first, but the $252 price turned into a more than $400 one with the add-ons.

"At the last minute, you get bamboozled, as I call it. It's just not right," Murray said.

Bill Richardson of Dothan, Ala., on his way to a health care company management conference in Red Bank, said that instead of the add-ons, "they should just charge one price and that would be it."

Because he booked his flight early, he avoided the holiday fee.

Around the same time last holiday season, Menendez, with planes taking off behind him at Newark Airport, also called for airlines to better explain their add-on charges. That followed his push a month earlier for airlines to reduce fuel surcharges that had been imposed when oil costs were higher.