December 11, 2018
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Susan Collins sides with flyers over the big airlines

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Sen. Susan Collins has introduced legislation that could help save travelers billions of dollars in higher airfares by protecting competition and consumers’ ability to easily compare their options.

Bangor International Airport is served by four airlines: Allegiant, American, Delta and United. In the case of American, Delta and United, unless your destination is one of their “hub” cities, you need to change planes somewhere along the way. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, of the top 10 destinations from Bangor, all but two are served by just one airline, giving carriers a nonstop monopoly on those routes.

In light of that, how can Mainers find the best flight schedule and an affordable airfare for them, their family or their business? How can they compare differences between airlines serving Bangor in how long a trip takes and what the total cost will be?

For decades, independent travel websites — loyal only to getting you the best deal and not to any one airline — have helped travelers navigate the options. The information these travel resources provide might introduce you to a carrier you hadn’t heard of or make you aware of a less stressful airport to change planes. If you had relied on one of the individual sites from the four airlines serving Bangor, you may have missed out on a better price or even a nonstop flight.

But today, airlines are making it harder to compare prices and schedules by withholding their public schedule and fare information from independent travel services. They hope to steer you toward the sites they prefer, instead of those you choose.

Blocking easy comparison shopping is even more of an issue now that the four largest carriers — American, Delta, Southwest and United — control 81 percent of the U.S. market. In fact, it is impossible to find a single website that can sell you a ticket on all four of the airlines serving Bangor. In the case of Portland, there isn’t even a single website that can show all the fares the airlines offer.

Why? When you are able to compare options side-by-side, airlines don’t always make as much money. If one carrier offers a better fare, other carriers know they might lose you if they don’t match it, so they may lower their price. If the other airlines offer a shorter connecting time or more comfortable aircraft, it puts pressure on other airlines to do the same. That’s healthy competition in a free-market economy.

But instead of embracing competition, the airlines are blocking it. At a time when there is more technological capability than ever that could simplify the booking process and provide you with everything you need to make an informed choice — which is what surveys and studies tell us the public wants — the airlines seem to be maximizing their record profits by confusing, deceiving and exhausting us before we even leave for the airport.

The Air Travel Fairness Coalition, a partnership of consumer and business groups, as well as 70,000 travelers across Maine and the U.S., is fighting to keep travel affordable by protecting easy comparisons of all airfares and schedules.

A few months ago, Sen. Collins quietly took action to reinstate a key Department of Transportation review called a “request for information” on airline ticket sales, or “distribution” practices. The airline industry convinced the department to delay, and then suspend, the review last year. It was left for dead.

But as chair of the U.S. Senate subcommittee that funds the Transportation Department, Sen. Collins introduced legislation that would compel it to resume this essential review and give the flying public a voice in policymaking.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the affordability of air travel for millions of consumers is on the line. One study found that comparison shopping resources save travelers up to $6 billion per year, and without it, 41 million trips would become unaffordable.

Sen. Collins knows consumers deserve to be heard, too. Unlike the Transportation Department — which never met an airline proposal it didn’t like, no matter how much more it costs the rest of us — Sen. Collins is siding with people who depend on the airlines in their personal and professional lives.

Kurt Ebenhoch is executive director of the Air Travel Fairness Coalition.

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