Hypocrisy in Flight

The airlines have some nerve complaining about “disclosure” and “transparency.’

United Airlines spammed me today. Its e-mail urged me to ask Congress to tighten regulation on oil speculation. “Some market experts estimate that current prices reflect as much as $30 to $60 per barrel in unnecessary speculative costs,” explained the e-mail, which was also signed by AirTran, Alaska Airlines, American, Continental, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, Jet Blue, Midwest, Northwest, Southwest, and US Airways. These airlines were kind enough to draft my constituent plea for me. That’s helpful, because I have no idea what the London Loophole and the Enron Loophole are (apparently I want to end them) and only the vaguest notion of what “position limits” are (apparently I want to bring them back). My task is but to click here; enter my zip code, name, and address; and click “send message.”

Nothing doing. There wouldn’t be much point, because my representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, though a very fine person, is not permitted to vote on the floor of the House (I live in the District of Columbia) and doesn’t sit on any committees relevant to this beef. I have no senator to write to, because D.C. doesn’t have one. Setting aside my disenfranchisement, I doubt that speculation has much to do with the price of oil, which as I write is trading at $142 per barrel. (Click here for an update.) “Some market experts” (emphasis added) cited by the airlines may put the cost of oil speculation at $30 to $60 per barrel, but most say that the oil futures market plays little to no role in setting prices. See, for example, this fairly persuasive column by Joseph Nocera of the New York Times, or this one by James Surowiecki of The New Yorker, or this one, by Paul Krugman of Princeton and the Times op-ed page. If I were to pester Rep. Norton about the high price of oil, I wouldn’t ask her to rein in oil speculation. I’d ask her to get the Justice Department or the World Trade Organization to bust the OPEC cartel.

In that e-mail I won’t be sending to Rep. Norton, the airlines have me asking Congress to “Bring transparency to all energy trading.” The airlines’ “open letter” to customers like me promises that tighter regulation of oil speculation “will provide more disclosure, transparency and sound market oversight.” I’m all for providing more market information to investors, consumers, and government regulators. But if any industry has forfeited its right to lecture others about “disclosure” and “transparency” on pricing, it’s the airline business. The big story about airlines this summer has been the rapid proliferation of hidden fees added to the price of a plane ticket. The airlines now charge extra for making your reservation by phone or at an airline counter (it’s still free to reserve online); for checking bags; for choosing your seat; for soft drinks and food; for curbside check-in (that’s apart from your tip); for traveling with an infant on your lap; for traveling with a pet under your seat; for traveling as an unaccompanied minor; for restoring to your account frequent flier miles cashed in on an unused ticket; and for cashing in frequent flier miles less than a week before flying. Earlier this week I flew from Boston to Washington. I arrived at the airport three hours early and asked the airline clerk whether there was room on an earlier flight. No problem, he said, but that’ll cost you $40 unless you want to travel standby. Standby? The flight was nowhere near full, but I didn’t want to fret that others might buy up the remaining seats while I slurped my preflight fish chowder. I sighed heavily and shelled out.

The airlines’ hidden fees serve two purposes. One is to make it as difficult as possible to know the absolute price of your ticket. The other is to make it as difficult as possible to compare the price of your ticket to that of competing airlines. The latter problem has cropped up because not all airlines pile on the same fees, and even when they do the amounts vary. Entire Web sites (see, for example, here and here) have sprung up to keep track of how much each airline charges for each newly designated “extra.” Buying an airline ticket is starting to resemble buying a car, or even a house, with similarly bewildering phantom fees added on after you thought you’d settled on a price.

Do me a favor, United, AirTran, and all the others. Stop whining about “disclosure” and “transparency” until you’re ready to cough up a little yourself. In the meantime, Delegate Norton, I can’t help noticing that you sit on the House aviation subcommittee. Think about introducing a bill sometime to end the airlines’ ticket-pricing games.*

*Correction, July 13, 2008: An earlier version of this column referred erroneously to “Rep.” Norton. Because the District of Columbia is not a state, Norton’s formal title is “Delegate,” not “Representative.”