Consumers push back on new airline rules, higher fares

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Customers of United wait in line to check in at Newark International Airport in November 2012.

If you're a business traveler flying to St. Louis then on to Chicago to see a client, with a stop in Cincinnati on the way home, that multi-city itinerary may now cost you a lot more.

The nation's largest airlines - American, Delta, and United - on April 1 changed the way they price multiple-city trips.

Until very recently, reservations computers would find the lowest non-refundable fare for each one-way flight in an itinerary and tally them for one cost of the trip.

Starting this month, however, the big three airlines changed their "combinability" fare rules so that customers cannot string together what airlines call "discounted local fares." This often may not allow them to get their money's worth on the entire route.

When airlines announced the change, the fares generated on booking computers for a multi-city reservation became "fully refundable fares, which were insanely expensive. You saw $2,000 differences on some of these," said Brett Snyder, author of CrankyFlier.com, an airline industry blog.

In the last two weeks, after public outcry, airlines have been backtracking and tweaking their fares, said Snyder, who recommends that passengers compare the cost of purchasing each flight separately with the price for a single ticket with multiple stops.

"Just because you never know how something is going to price," he said. "Airlines have made this so opaque and so confusing."

Consumers are pushing back. This week, a group of passengers and travel agents filed a federal lawsuit in San Francisco alleging that American, Delta, and United adopted rules to block use of their least expensive fares in a conspiracy that violates antitrust laws.

The rules can cause "consumers to pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars more for exactly the same flights," the suit said.

Jeffrey Erlbaum, president of ETA Travel in Conshohocken, said he booked a trip April 16 for a client flying from New York LaGuardia Airport to Fort Myers, Fla., and then from Orlando to San Francisco on Delta Air Lines. The first flight is April 28 and the second May 5.

If purchased on the same ticket,the cost would be $1,161.20. As two one-way trips, the LaGuardia-Fort Meyers ticket was $240.47 and the Orlando-San Francisco flight $211.60.

"It used to be they allowed you to take advantage of the two one-way fares," Erlbaum said. "There's no real explanation as to why they are doing it. It makes it much harder to book."

The downside to buying separate tickets is that if a passenger later changes travel plans, there is a $200 change fee for each ticket, Erlbaum said.

American, the largest U.S. airline by passenger traffic with a hub in Philadelphia, said the claims in the lawsuit "are completely without merit."

American recently changed its rules to ensure "that new lower fares we introduced would be available to passengers flying the route for which the fares were intended." The move eliminated "a loophole in the fare rules that allowed some people to construct connections that combined two nonstop fares."

The lawsuit, filed by Alioto Law Firm in San Francisco, seeks an injunction to stop the three airlines, which control more than 70 percent of the U.S. market, from unlawful "restraint of interstate trade and commerce."

American, Delta, and United changed the pricing on multi-city trips "to try to solve a different problem," CrankyFlier's Snyder said. Low-cost rivals Spirit and Frontier have been rapidly expanding, offering cut-rate fares.

The major airlines "have been struggling to find a way to control how many people have access to those really cheap ultra low-cost carrier matching fares," Snyder said.

Under the new policies, a traveler flying from Washington to Dallas, staying awhile, and then flying to San Francisco, staying for a while, and flying back to Washington on American would pay $1,837.20 on a single ticket. It would cost $412.80 if the flights were bought separately, Snyder wrote in a March 31 blog post.

"To fix the problem, airlines dropped the hammer," he said. "They made it so that fares could not be combined with other fares on a single ticket, except for simple out-and-back round trips (from Point A to Point B and back to Point A)."

lloyd@phillynews.com

215-854-2831 @LoydLinda

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