Airlines Want to Outlaw Comparison Shopping Sites In Order to Help You

“I’m from the airlines and I’m here to help.”

In a vacuum more information is good for consumers. But too much information, or information that’s not relevant to a customer, isn’t helpful. In fact having to sort through it all can make it difficult to find and understand the information that helps you make a decision.

That’s why mandating what airline fees get disclosed to which customers — every single time — is a bad idea because it shuts down innovation. Checked baggage fees probably aren’t as important to me as what kind of internet will be offered onboard, and at what price. Companies like RouteHappy, providing rich customer experience data, are important. We need more of that.

Airlines have made the travel booking experience more complicated. There are checked baggage fees, seat assignment fees, and fares that don’t allow advance seat assignments or even full-sized carry on bags at all.

I wouldn’t want to ban the practice because you’d be banning Spirit Airlines and Frontier, ultra low cost carriers that drive down the price of travel. I do want consumers to understand the practice, and also to shame legacy carriers that are intentionally making their product worse so that customers will spend more. I think it’s a backwards way to drive a fare increase.

Online travel agency websites aren’t as good at displaying fees as airline websites themselves are. And that’s by design, airlines resist sharing all of the information through global distribution systems and allowing full purchase ability through those systems. They don’t just want to upsell consumers, they want to upsell agencies too. They want to capture revenue for their information, and they want to keep the upsell revenue almost in full too.

So when Congress debates rules for online travel agencies — that they have to provide information to consumers about airline tickets which they aren’t also requiring airlines to provide to sites in a standard format you know it’s the airlines trying to kill off competition from online agencies, using consumer protection as a cloak. Don’t be fooled.

Travel sites worry Congress will impose requirements they’re unable to fulfill, because the airlines control baggage fees, schedule changes and other policies, and may not fully share the information.

“These proposals would put ticket agents in an untenable position where they simply cannot comply because they don’t have access to the information,” said Steve Shur, president of the Travel Technology Association, whose members include Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline. “They may have access to some of it, not all of it. There’s no guarantee that they’re going to have.”

…Kevin Mitchell, who heads a business travel group and is a frequent airline critic, worries lawmakers will give the airlines the power to kill off travel websites by simply withholding information.

“It’s a very Orwellian type of approach. They simply will not be able to comply with the legislation. Therefore, they get shut down,” he said.

Information about price should be made available to any outlet permitted to sell a product. And then sites should be able to compete to offer the best shopping experience to consumers, an experience that actually helps them to make the best decisions for themselves.

A guided process that’s relevant to a passenger is different than a one size fits all disclosure approach. And a one size fits all disclosure approach actually prevents innovation in making the travel buying process easier for consumers — something that’s desperately needed.

Consumers don’t benefit from airlines shutting down competition in ticket sales, and in the way that tickets are sold. They can’t just come out and say that’s what they want to do, so they’re going to develop talking points around helping consumers. But it just ain’t true.

Goodness knows I’m no fan of Expedia on the whole I think they’re awful. But that’s precisely why we need to allow competition in the online booking space. We need to allow new entrants to try to do things differently.

Expedia Dancers Don’t Provide Customer Service. Flickr: Juggernautco

No proposed law by the way requires airlines to show you competitor prices on their websites, by the way. And that comparison shopping has to be at least as important as fee disclosure, and more important to any given customer than disclosure of fees that aren’t relevant to them.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Completely agree with your assessment of Expedia. Horrible customer service and the sheer existence of the all powerful Transaction Processing Team that is able to cancel bookings and deny the use of your points with explanation or justification is just as anti-consumer as it gets.

  2. I might be in a minority on this, but I rarely if ever use sites like Expedia, Kayak, Orbitz, etc. — precisely because, “Online travel agency websites aren’t as good at displaying fees as airline websites themselves are.” For *me*, it’s just as easy to open up, say, three tabs on my internet browser and compare times, equipment, and fares on (e.g.) AA, DL, and UA¹. Plus, these sites don’t show fares on WN, which can be a perfectly viable option on short-haul (<2 hours out of OAK) nonstop flights due to "transfarency."

    I will use the ITA Matrix or Google flights at the very beginning of my search to get a rough idea of cost, of available times, and — if unfamiliar with the route — to know which carriers operate that routing and where any potential transfers may be. But for actual pricing and other "hard" information, I go straight to the airline's website.

    ¹ You know that's just an example as I consciously avoid flying any of the US L3 unless it's a) unavoidable, b) they're having a huge fare sale, or c) there's an incredible deal using points — which I'll then transfer from some other account (Amex, Chase, Citi, or SPG), or book through an alliance airline.

  3. I think you paraphrased Ronald Reagan’s famous quote “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

    This is always the problem with regulation. The large companies will have their lobbyist to have Congress design regulation to help them to “help” the people. Anyone without that power (ie small business innovators) will not be able to comply and will be out of business. Even if the regulations are onerous to everyone, only the large companies will have money to comply.

    (1) We are seeing this play out with European Privacy Laws. They are onerous to Google and Facebook (perhaps justified). However, they will put the small one person internet innovators out of business, because they cannot afford the millions required to comply. [In fact, one wonders if the freewheeling conversation about Airlines on this website would be legal in Europe.]

    (2) The Obama era Dodd-Frank financial legislation had the unintended consequence putting smaller banks out of business that could not afford the increased regulation costs, thereby significantly increasing concentration in the banking industry.

    (3) The Bush area Sarbanes Oxley act intended to prevent another Enron, had the unintended impact of reducing the number of companies filing in the USA because of compliance costs. According the Scott S. Powell in a 2/13/18 Wall Street Journal Commentary, it costs about $2MM in compliance annually for small companies and much more for larger companies. According to the Bloomberg Editorial Board (4/9/18), number of public companies in the USA are down by about 50% since 1997. It means that Ma and Pa Kettle (through a small cap mutual fund of course [I saw more or less true move “Wolf of Wall Street”]) cannot get in on a great startup, because that startup will look for private money, because it is too expensive to issue equity.

    Circling back to airlines, as much as I hate the big three airlines, I sincerely believe that increased regulation to fix the issues, would reduce competition and hurt the consumer. Some arguing that we should stick the airlines with law suits, laws, and regulations. Just put those halo seeking individuals and everything will be copacetic. Be careful what you wish for. Just remember in the horror movies that beautiful angel
    often turns out to be a demon in disguise.

  4. Anything the big 3/4 airlines want to change is about extracting more and more and is inherently anti-consumer in my opinion. There actions time after time are the evidence. Reduce transparency and make comparisons more difficult. They want to end any and all consumer friendly rules and regulations.

  5. Long before Reagan, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help” was long recognized as one of the three “Great Lies of the Western World”:

    1) “The check’s in the mail”;
    2) “This won’t hurt a bit”; and,
    3) “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.”

    The optional fourth great lie is, “Of course I’ll respect you in the morning” (admittedly, that’s the “clean” version), but that one has fallen into disuse over the decades.

  6. Gary, I agree with you on (mostly) all your points, with the exception being:

    “Checked baggage fees probably aren’t as important to me as what kind of internet will be offered onboard, and at what price.”

    Maybe to YOU internet is more important, but to my mom, my sister, or my neighbor, checked baggage fees are more important. Therefore, some kind of user-friendly template, which prompts the user something like “check the boxes to compare your top 5 concerns/requirements” or some such language, and then a personalized table pops up showing DL, UA, WN, AA, AS (and/or any other airline of the customer’s choice) cheapest morning flights next Tuesday between 12 and 3 (primary concern), along with baggage fees (a top 5 concern), extra legroom fees (a top 5 concern), food and beverages served (a top 5 concern), and class of service, meaning Y- or plain Y in plain language (a top 5 concern). There could be toggle switches to eliminate or change the fields as needed.

    Whereas you, Gary, may care more about internet and seat arrangement, grandma is interested in bag fees and how Y- affects her pocketbook.

    From what I could see of RouteHappy, some of this is accomplished, but not enough.

    Really, it wouldn’t be that difficult for the airlines to dump all the information, and allow the travel shipping sites (Expedia, Kayak, et. al.) to develop their own algorithmic, if/then software for the consumer to utilize. Any such user-friendly friendly site that does this is going to be more heavily utilized than one that lacks these tools.

    Whether it should be mandated by the government is a different story.

  7. @KimmieA – you are making my point, different passengers value different things so customized information is more helpful than forcing someone to wade through information that isn’t relevant to them. booking travel is hard enough as it is without having to deal with a schumer box for booking airfare

  8. @KimmieA —> Just to add to Gary’s response re: you making his point . . .

    Baggage fees are irrelevant to me, too, AS LONG AS . . .
    • I hold elite status on _______________ airline; or,
    •. I have a credit card in my wallet that permits me to have a free checked bag (or more) for both myself and my traveling companion on _______________ airline.

    On the other hand, if I’m flying onboard a carrier where neither applies, then — absolutely! — baggage fees are important to me. This is what makes Southwest particularly attractive in my “preferred” domestic airline doesn’t fly to my destination, and certainly applies if I’m flying, say, within Europe. (Vueling, for example, cost me a fortune, for example, when flying Bilbao to LHR.)

    Not only is it a matter of “different strokes for different folks” (e.g.: Garry versus your mother, sister, etc.), but it’s also a very fluid situation, in that X may matter to you )or your mom, your sister, etc.) some times but not at others.

  9. That should read “This is what makes Southwest particularly attractive IF my preferred domestic airline . . .” Sorry for the typo.

  10. I have had terrible experiences with Expedia overbooking hotel rooms, then was left left without a hotel room, and a month before Expedia would refund my money. One time was when I was booking seven rooms locally for family traveling in across the region for our son’s high school graduation. Quite an expensive purchase, only to find out the hotel did not have capacity, and the rooms Expedia booked were not available. We ended up searching all across the region to find the right number of rooms, and ended up in a very low-star hotel (luckily it was clean), that I then had to book to get those rooms. Expedia would not immediately refund my money, but said it would take 4 – 6 weeks for my money to be credited back to my card. Since then, I only book direct through the actual brand’s travel site and not through 3rd party sites.

    I also want all the reward points I can get, which often you don’t get when booking through Expedia or other 3rd party vendors. (They claim you get them, but you only get a small portion of them.) I tend to look at Expedia/Travelocity/etc. initially just to get the overview of flight times/prices that fit my schedule/budget. Then I go directly to those airline sites to book the flight(s) of my choice. The airline desk agents have told me that when a flight is canceled, delayed, those individuals who booked through the actual airline’s website/agents will be the first to be rebooked/cared for. Those that book through 3rd party vendors will not be their priority.

    I do have my preferred airlines and try to use them first, but I always, always, always go directly through their websites to book my flights.

  11. Does any even somewhat experienced traveler use Expedia or other similar sites to book hotels or airfare? I don’t see any advantage to doing so, and being disabled I would never do so anyway since they can’t guarantee an accessible room.

  12. First and foremost we the consumer (airline fares) are getting scr…… royally by the industry.
    The laws that they hide behind are self serving and not serving their customers (us).
    They should be required to spell out exactly what each dollar is purchasing. i.e., seat cost = X
    Baggage cost = X and so forth.
    The games need to be eliminated. Just tell us the true cost of the ticket like it was in the 70’s and 80’s.
    What we have now is pure BS.
    Wake up traveler and demand answers about ridiculous fees for every thing. Next we will have fees for waiting at the gate more than 5 minutes before the flight?

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