WASHINGTON — Airlines would have to improve disclosure of fees for services such as checked bags, carry-on items and advance-seat assignment under a consumer-protection rule the Transportation Department proposed Wednesday.
"Knowledge is power, and our latest proposal helps ensure consumers have clear and accurate information when choosing among air transportation options," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
The long-awaited rule is the third in a series, with others in 2009 and 2011. The earlier rules raised penalties for long tarmac delays and required airlines to announce full fares including taxes the first time they advertise a ticket price. Consumer groups welcomed the long-awaited proposals.
"I think that it's good for consumers," said Charlie Leocha, head of the Consumer Travel Alliance and a member of a department panel called the Advisory Committee on Aviation Consumer Protections. "Finally the DOT is going to require airlines to tell consumers how much the full price of travel is."
Airlines fought the earlier rules and are pushing legislation in Congress to overturn the full-fare advertising rule. The airline lobbying group, Airlines for America, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Under the proposal, airlines and ticket agents would be required to disclose fees for basic services such as first and second checked bags, carry-on items and seat assignments at all points of sale. The department contends that fees now sometimes simply listed on a website leave travelers unable to understand the total cost of a ticket before buying it.
One concern Leocha raised is that the proposal technically requires airlines to disclose their prices, but ticket agents such as online sales sites might not be able to sell those services. A traveler could be in a position of paying for a ticket at an online site while knowing what the prices are for baggage and seat assignment, but then have to go to the airline to actually buy those extra services, Leocha said.
"It's just totally unworkable," said Leocha, who expected the problem to be resolved with public comment.
Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a group representing travel managers for corporations, commended the department but said he is still reviewing the proposals.
"We urge the agency to ensure that consumers can purchase these services from travel agents at the same time as an airline ticket," Mitchell said.
The proposal would also expand the airlines that must report information to the department about how many times their flights are late, how many times they sell too many tickets for a flight and how many times they mishandle bags.
The expansion will cover smaller airlines, such as Spirit and Allegiant, and regional airlines that operate flights for major airlines.
The proposal would also:
• Require large-volume travel agents to adopt minimum customer service standards such as responding promptly to customer complaints and holding reservations for 24 hours without payment. Travel agents range from mom-and-pop store fronts to massive online operations such as Orbitz.
• Require airlines and ticket agents to disclose the airlines actually providing flights, under code-share arrangements, on initial itinerary displays on their websites.
• Prohibit travel agents from ranking flights of certain carriers above others without disclosing the bias in any presentation of carrier schedules, fares, rules, or availability.
"The proposal we're offering today will strengthen the consumer protections we have previously enacted and raise the bar for airlines and ticket agents when it comes to treating travelers fairly," Foxx said.
Implementing the rule is at least months away and the proposals could be changed. The department will collect public comment for 90 days.