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Flustering fares

As carriers add costs, one N.E. travel website looks to cut through confusion

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nicole C. Wong
Globe Staff / June 26, 2008

Airlines' new fees - from $5 for some aisle seats to $15 for the first piece of checked luggage - are upending the appeal of using websites to find the cheapest fares.

No longer can travelers unearth the best deals with a few clacks on the keyboard. Now they have to remember which airlines assess which fees and calculate whether the one offering the lowest fare is truly the cheapest.

Consumers are confused. Many airfare comparison sites - ranging from BestFares.com to Orbitz.com - say they, too, are frustrated by the mishmash of fees that airlines are charging to offset the costs of rising jet fuel. Many don't plan to change how they display search results, in part because it's hard to account for fees that don't apply to all travelers. Others are pulling together charts comparing a few of the fees across carriers - leaving the math up to travelers.

Then there's Kayak.com. The country's most-visited travel meta-search engine is rewriting its airfare-calculating algorithm to give travelers the option of including fees, from checked bags to in-flight food. The Norwalk, Conn., company plans to debut the new menu in mid-July.

"We've put a lot of energy over the last few years to try to have true pricing," said Paul English, chief technology officer. "In many cases, the airline websites themselves won't have these additional fees" calculated in total ticket prices.

Such clarity will please Dave Sturtz, who always checks in two pieces of luggage when flying to a scuba-diving vacation because his underwater equipment just won't fit in a carry-on. The 56-year-old UPS driver fired off an e-mail last week asking Kayak.com to add a feature to its airfare search menu that includes luggage fees in the total ticket price.

Sturtz understands airlines need to cover their costs, but he prefers carriers raise the airfare rather than tack on these "atrocious" fees. "It's dishonest to hide a bunch of stuff that needs to be added on later," he said.

Airlines say they aren't trying to trick customers, but rather price their flights competitively while charging passengers for the services they use.

Kayak.com decided it would rewrite its code a month ago when American Airlines Inc. became the first major US airline to announce it will start charging many customers $15 to check in one bag.

The company's engineering office in Concord, Mass., had an intern scour each airline's website to find the data for the fee chart.

BestFares.com also has created a chart listing some of the new fees - a task that chief executive Tom Parsons assigned to two researchers. "They hate it to the max," he said. But BestFares isn't going to change the way it calculates total ticket prices.

"We just say 'baggage fees may apply,' " Parsons said. "They're changing like the wind."

Parsons added: "I like the chart because you become an educated consumer. You see who's smacking you the hardest."

Other sites, like Orbitz.com, aren't altering their search results because the add-ons are "supplier fees that are charged at the point of travel," said spokeswoman Abby Hunt.

Likewise, Cheapflights.com decided not to change its calculations because services like transporting checked luggage "are 'optional' and not uniform across the industry," said US director of marketing Carl Schwartz.

FareCompare.com is discussing creating an airline fee calculator to give an apples-to-apples comparison of the total cost of flights, said chief executive Rick Seaney. For now, Seaney posted a fee chart on his blog.

Comprehensive calculations might not make airfare shopping less confusing.

"It's a bit of a risky proposition for Kayak to change their algorithm for how they price things out," said Gregory Saks, general manager of the travel practice at research firm Compete Inc.

He said Kayak.com has attracted more than 5 million monthly users because its "no-frills design appeals to air shoppers looking for the quickest way to find the best flight."

But if consumers, who usually check multiple airfare websites, think Kayak.com is spitting out erroneous prices because they don't understand how to use the new features that wrap extra fees into the total costs, these price-sensitive souls could quickly decamp to competitors' sites.

"It is a communication challenge to be sure," said Kayak.com chief executive Steve Hafner. "We'll figure it out."

Yesterday, several Kayak.com executives were at the Concord office to tweak a fee chart it plans to unveil today to help travelers in the interim. They decided to change the wording from "see airline fees" to "compare airline fees."

"I don't think the airlines will like it," general counsel Karen Klein said of the change.

Keith Melnick, executive vice president of corporate development, replied: "I much rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission."

Nicole C. Wong can be reached at nwong@globe.com.


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