Will Fee Disclosure Rule Hurt the Airlines' Revenue Model? Is the Government Overstepping?

Will Fee Disclosure Rule Hurt the Airlines' Revenue Model? Is the Government Overstepping?
Photo by Philippe Murray-Pietsch / Unsplash

You might have already heard about the new airline fee disclosure rule (Enhancing Transparency of Airline Ancillary Service Fees) issued by the US Department of Transportation (DOT). It goes into effect on July 1, 2024.

And the airline industry is already revolting against it. This rule has sparked a legal battle between major carriers and the Department of Transportation (DOT). 

Airlines for America (A4A), along with American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, and Alaska Airlines, have filed a lawsuit against the DOT in the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

This turn of events represents a significant inflection point for an industry that has increasingly relied on ancillary fees to bolster its bottom line in the face of economic headwinds and shifting consumer preferences.

Today, I want to discuss the potential ramifications of the US government's recently finalized airline fee disclosure rule. 

The Pivotal Point of the Controversy

At the heart of this dispute lies a fundamental question: 

Does the government have the right to dictate how businesses display information and structure their revenue models in a deregulated marketplace? 

The DOT, under the leadership of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, clearly believes it does.

The agency asserts that the new rule, which requires airlines and ticket agents to disclose all fees upfront, including charges for checked bags, carry-on bags, seat selection, flight changes, and cancellations, is necessary to promote transparency and protect consumers from hidden "junk fees."

Buttigieg has framed the issue as one of consumer empowerment, arguing that travelers should be able to see the full price of a trip before purchasing a ticket and compare shopping between carriers.

The DOT estimates that this enhanced transparency will save consumers over $500 million annually, which would have otherwise gone towards unexpected fees.

Airlines Cry Foul

Unsurprisingly, the airline industry has pushed back against what it perceives as regulatory overreach. 

As mentioned earlier, in a lawsuit filed in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, a coalition of major carriers, along with trade group Airlines for America, contend the DOT exceeded its statutory authority and the regulation is "arbitrary and capricious."

The plaintiffs maintain that airlines already provide adequate fee disclosures, and the additional requirements will only confuse consumers. They argue the DOT is attempting to improperly regulate businesses that are operating successfully in a competitive marketplace.

This is not the first time the industry has clashed with regulators over fee disclosures. 

The Obama administration pursued a similar step in 2011, and there was pushback from airlines and Congress. It remains to be seen if history will repeat itself or if the DOT, emboldened by the Biden administration's broader crackdown on so-called "junk fees" across multiple sectors, will prevail this time around.

The Airline Ancillary Fee Bonanza

To understand why airlines are so fiercely defending the current fee practices, just follow the money trail.

In recent years, ancillary fees have become an increasingly vital profit center for the industry. The airlines globally collected a staggering $102.8 billion in ancillary revenue in 2022, representing about 15% of their total income. For some carriers, like Spirit and Frontier, these fees account for over 50% of total revenue.

The growth has been especially pronounced in the US market. In 2023, the US major airlines alone generated an estimated $37.8 billion in ancillary revenues. It accounts for 32% of global ancillary revenue and nearly 68% of commission-based and frequent flyer revenue.

These extra charges have proven to be a lifeline for airlines during times of economic turbulence and volatile fuel prices. 

And the growth of airline ancillary revenue is not slowing down. Many forecasts estimate a double-digit compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the years ahead. 

Clearly, airlines have become increasingly dependent on monetizing services beyond the base fare, and they don't want new regulations to threaten this lucrative revenue stream.

The Airline Ticket Unbundling Debate

At a philosophical level, the fee disclosure dispute speaks to a larger debate over the merits of the unbundled pricing model that has proliferated in the airline industry since deregulation. 

Proponents argue this a la carte approach gives consumers greater choice and control over their travel experience, allowing them to pay only for the services they value.

However, critics contend the practice has devolved into a bait-and-switch tactic, with airlines luring customers in with low base fares only to hit them with a barrage of add-on fees later in the booking process. They argue this opacity makes it difficult for consumers to "compare shop" and budget effectively for travel.

The DOT seems to have sided with the latter camp, asserting in the new rule that surprise fees that are disclosed only at the end of the booking process or when the consumer checks in for the flight do not enhance transparency and competition. The agency wants to ensure consumers have all the relevant fee information upfront so they can make informed decisions.

Airlines counter that the popularity of unbundled fares is evidence that consumers prefer this model and are not being deceived. They maintain that the DOT's rule will only lead to information overload and hamper the booking process.

Operational Challenges and Unintended Consequences

Beyond the philosophical debate, airlines have practical concerns about the operational challenges and costs of complying with the new fee disclosure requirements. Updating booking platforms to display fees more prominently could require significant IT investments and lead time.

Training staff, especially at airports, to handle questions about the new formats may also be necessary. If the rule does dampen demand for certain ancillary services, that could have ramifications for everything from staffing levels to how gate agents process check-ins.

There is also a risk of customer confusion during the transition period as travelers get accustomed to the revamped displays. Airlines will need clear communications to explain any changes and set expectations.

Then, there could be potential unintended consequences as well. 

If airlines feel pressure to lower ancillary fees to remain competitive in a more transparent marketplace, they may seek to offset that lost revenue by raising base fares. This could undermine the DOT's goal of saving consumers money.

Alternatively, carriers could further segment the market with more bundled fare options, giving them leeway to still generate ancillary revenue from less price-sensitive travelers while appearing to offer all-in prices to more frugal shoppers. This could actually make comparison shopping more complex.

How Will It Affect the Airport and Airway Trust Fund?

Another wrinkle in the fee disclosure debate is the impact on the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF), which helps finance FAA operations and infrastructure projects. The fund is supported in part by a 7.5% excise tax on airline tickets. However, most ancillary fees are not subject to this tax.

As airlines have shifted more of their revenue from fares to fees, AATF receipts have suffered

I found an old report where the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated the trust fund missed out on $309 million in 2016 alone due to untaxed baggage fees.

Some consumer advocates argue the rise of ancillary fees has allowed airlines to effectively "hide" millions in revenue from taxation, starving the AATF of vital resources. They contend more fee disclosures could indirectly pressure carriers to rebalance their pricing and shore up trust fund receipts.

Airlines, for their part, have fiercely resisted any effort to expand ticket taxes to cover ancillary fees. They argue such a move would amount to a tax hike on travelers and hurt demand.

While the new DOT rule does not directly address this trust fund issue, it could reignite the debate over how airline revenue should be taxed in a new pricing environment. 

Policymakers will need to grapple with how to sustainably fund aviation infrastructure while not unduly burdening either passengers or carriers.

Competitive Implications of the New Airline Fee Disclosure Rule

Assuming the fee disclosure rule survives legal challenges, it could have significant competitive implications for the airline industry. 

On one hand, greater price transparency could spur more competition as carriers feel pressure to keep ancillary fees in check to avoid sticker shock at the start of the booking process.

This could be especially beneficial for carriers like Southwest, which already include many services in their base fares and have made "transfarency" a key selling point. The rule could level the playing field by making it harder for rivals to undercut Southwest's prices with lowball base fares only to make up the difference later with add-on charges.

On the flip side, ultra low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier that have built their business models around unbundled pricing and ancillary fees may find it harder to differentiate themselves in a world of upfront, all-in pricing. If they are forced to raise base fares to compensate for lost ancillary revenue, they may find it tougher to stimulate demand from extremely price-sensitive travelers.

Of course, much will depend on how nimbly airlines adapt to the new disclosure regime and whether they can find creative ways to preserve ancillary revenue without alienating customers. Some may see it as an opportunity to simplify their fee structures and build customer loyalty through more transparent pricing.

Global Airline Context

It's worth noting that the US is not alone in grappling with how to regulate airline fees in an evolving marketplace. 

In Europe, the European Commission has been exploring ways to boost fee transparency and crack down on potentially misleading marketing practices by airlines and ticket agents.

In 2020, the Commission published a study finding that travelers were often confronted with unclear or incomplete fee information when booking flights online, especially on third-party sites. It called for stronger enforcement of existing EU rules requiring clear disclosure of optional price supplements throughout the booking process.

Other countries, such as Canada, have also been scrutinizing airline fee practices and considering whether tougher regulations are needed to protect consumers.

As the global aviation industry has become increasingly interconnected, there may be pressure for greater harmonization of fee disclosure standards across borders.

At the same time, airlines are likely to resist any efforts to impose overly prescriptive or strict regulations that could hamper their ability to compete in a dynamic global marketplace. Striking the right balance between consumer protection and industry competitiveness will be an ongoing challenge for policymakers worldwide.

The Road Ahead

As the legal battle over the DOT's fee disclosure rule plays out in court, the airline industry finds itself at a crossroads.

The coming months and years could bring significant changes to how carriers display prices and generate revenue, with potentially far-reaching implications for competition, profitability, and the overall travel experience.

Much will depend on the outcome of the pending lawsuit and how aggressively the DOT moves to enforce the new requirements if it prevails. Airlines will no doubt be closely watching the proceedings and developing contingency plans to adapt to a range of possible scenarios.

Regardless of the specific outcome, it seems clear that the issue of airline fee disclosures will remain a hot-button topic for the foreseeable future. With ancillary revenue now such a vital part of the industry's business model, any efforts to regulate these fees are bound to be met with fierce resistance from carriers.

At the same time, consumer advocates and some policymakers appear determined to push for greater transparency and fairness in airline pricing. They argue that the industry has been allowed to operate with too little accountability for too long, and that stronger safeguards are needed to protect travelers from deceptive or misleading practices.

One thing I can say with certainty is that the industry's response to this rule will be a defining test of its adaptability and resilience in the face of disruptive change. Airlines have shown remarkable agility in the past, pivoting quickly to new business models and revenue streams in response to shifting market conditions and regulatory pressures.

Whether they can do so again in a way that balances the needs of consumers, investors, and other stakeholders remains to be seen. The battle over airline fee disclosures is far from over, and the stakes for all involved are higher than ever.

In the coming years, I believe we will see a fundamental reshaping of the airline industry's business model and competitive landscape. If the DOT's fee disclosure rule survives legal challenges, it could be a catalyst for this transformation.

Potential Paths Forward

As airlines grapple with the new regulatory reality, I see several potential paths they may take:

  • Simplification and Bundling: Some carriers may opt to simplify their fee structures and offer more all-inclusive fares to avoid sticker shock under the new disclosure regime. This could lead to a resurgence of bundled pricing, with airlines competing on the value proposition of their overall packages rather than a la carte fees.
  • Doubling Down on Segmentation: Alternatively, airlines may lean into the unbundling trend and look for even more ways to segment the market with branded fares and ancillary bundles tailored to specific customer segments. The key will be making these options clear and easy to compare upfront.
  • Innovating the Booking Experience: The disclosure rule could spur airlines to invest in overhauling their booking platforms to make them more user-friendly and transparent. This could involve deploying new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) to help customers navigate options and optimize their purchases based on their specific needs and preferences.
  • Shifting the Loyalty Paradigm: With ancillary fees under the microscope, airlines may put more emphasis on their loyalty programs as a way to offer exclusive perks and discounts to their best customers. This could lead to a shift from purely transactional loyalty to more experiential benefits and personalized service.

Of course, the path each airline takes will depend on its unique brand positioning, cost structure, and target customer base.

What works for a full-service global carrier may not make sense for an ultra-low-cost airline focused on price-sensitive leisure travelers.

An Opportunity for Differentiation

While the new disclosure rules pose compliance challenges, they also present an opportunity for airlines to differentiate themselves in the market. 

Carriers that can provide the most user-friendly and transparent booking experience, with clear value propositions for their fares and fees, stand to gain a competitive edge.

In an environment where consumers have more insight into the full cost of travel, airlines will need to work harder to earn their trust and loyalty. This could lead to a renewed focus on customer service, operational reliability, and product innovation as carriers look for ways to justify their fees and fares.

It's not hard to imagine a future where airlines compete not just on price but on the quality and clarity of their customer communications.

Those airlines that can make the booking process as painless and transparent as possible may be able to command a premium in the market.

Preparing for Unintended Consequences

As with any major regulatory change, there is also the potential for unintended consequences. 

1. One risk is that the added disclosure requirements could make the booking process more cumbersome for consumers, leading to frustration and abandoned purchases.

  • Airlines will need to be mindful of this risk and work to streamline their user interfaces (UI) as much as possible. 
  • They may also need to invest in additional customer support to help travelers navigate the new formats and answer questions about fees and policies.

2. Another potential pitfall is that the focus on fee disclosures could lead to a "race to the bottom" on base fares, with airlines feeling pressure to strip out as many ancillary services as possible to keep their initial price points low. This could ultimately lead to a decline in the overall quality of the air travel experience.

  • To guard against this, airlines will need to be strategic about how they structure their fares and ancillary bundles. The goal should be to provide clear value at each price point, not just to game the disclosure rules.

The Customer Is King

At the end of the day, the success or failure of the DOT's fee disclosure rule will be judged by how it impacts the customer experience. 

If the new regulations lead to more informed decision-making, greater price competition, and better service, they will be hailed as a win for consumers.

But if the result is more confusion, frustration, and a feeling of being nickel-and-dimed, the backlash could be swift and severe. 

Airlines that put the customer at the center of their strategies will be best positioned to navigate this new era of transparency and accountability.

As an industry analyst, my role is to provide insights and guidance to help airlines chart a course through these turbulent times. By staying attuned to shifting consumer expectations, regulatory pressures, and competitive dynamics, I believe the industry can emerge stronger and more customer-centric than ever before.

The DOT's fee disclosure rule may be a bitter pill for some airlines to swallow, but it could also be the catalyst for a long-overdue transformation of the industry's business model. 

Those carriers that embrace the challenge and use it as an opportunity to differentiate themselves in the market will be the ones that thrive in the years ahead.