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Biden Wants To Crack Down On Airline Fees To Increase Competition In The Industry


Air travel is back to near pre-pandemic levels, and so, too, are some of the aggravations of flying. Think long lines, cramped seats and of course, extra fees for everything from a checked bag to in-flight Wi-Fi. The Biden administration wants to crack down on those charges and require refunds if your bags arrive late or the Wi-Fi doesn't work. As NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago, it's part of a broader effort to try to increase competition in the airline industry.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: On a scale of 1 to 10, Dirk Fletcher describes the level of chaos when flying this summer as...

DIRK FLETCHER: We're, like, 11 1/2, I think. I want to get back down to, like, a normal nine.

SCHAPER: Put another way...

FLETCHER: And I'm hoping it tapers back down to, like, a normal level of crazy instead of a heightened level of crazy.

SCHAPER: The 52-year-old Chicagoite (ph) had just returned to O'Hare from a business trip to Tampa. And he says it's not just the slew of flight delays and cancellations, but airports seem more crowded and frenzied. And the cost of flying - that's up, too. Fifty-year-old Edward Phillips of Chicago.

EDWARD PHILLIPS: Oh, the price was pretty hefty.

SCHAPER: And not just for the ticket, but extra fees for checked luggage, assigned seats, food, Wi-Fi and on and on. Nineteen-year-old college student Allie Yonko found hers to be excessive.

ALLIE YONKO: Oh, my God. I had an overweight bag and had to pay $100 for my overweight bag. There's a debt in my credit card now.

SCHAPER: At least her bag arrived on time. If delayed, the airline is not required to refund that hefty checked bag fee. Nor are airlines required to refund other fees, like for Wi-Fi or extra leg room, when that service isn't provided. But the Biden administration wants to change that. Here's Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in Chicago last week.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: If you get charged a baggage fee and then you have a crazy delay in whether the bags even get there, if you pay for Wi-Fi and the Wi-Fi doesn't work, you ought to get your money back.

SCHAPER: The DOT is drafting rules requiring such refunds, and it wants airlines to more clearly disclose all those ancillary fees up front. The administration may also require full airfare refunds for flights canceled due to the pandemic. And they're looking to more strictly define what constitutes unfair and deceptive practices by airlines, reversing the Trump administration's watering down of that regulation. Kurt Ebenhoch is with the consumer group Travel Fairness Now.

KURT EBENHOCH: The Biden administration is recognizing that this is an uncompetitive industry. This is an industry that lacks enough competition, and consumers and employees are paying the price for it.

SCHAPER: Ebenhoch says the airlines rely on a tactic that he calls CDE.

EBENHOCH: Confuse, deceive and exhaust the customer into submission. And that is all sorts of pricing tricks, all sorts of pricing games.

SCHAPER: And he says it stems from far too much consolidation in the airline industry. Since 2010, airlines have disappeared. Names like TWA, America West, U.S. Airways, Northwest, Continental and AirTran are now part of the big four - American, Delta, United and Southwest. Ebenhoch says those four airlines control 80% of the U.S. market, acting in near lockstep when raising fees and fares and cutting services.

EBENHOCH: We represent people who love to travel, but it has gotten so out of balance and so out of whack, and we'd like to see some basic fairness restored.

SCHAPER: Not surprisingly, the airline industry disagrees. In a statement, the group Airlines for America says robust competition in the U.S. airline industry has generated unprecedented levels of affordability and accessibility, adding that this vigorous competition has led to historically low airfares, down 24% over the last decade when adjusted for inflation.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLAR BEAR'S "PEEPERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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