DOT fines AirTran $60,000 for unclear advertising

If it were a scene from one of Southwest Airlines’ ubiquitous TV commercials that poke fun at the carrier’s competition, a stripe-shirted referee would have rushed in to cry “Foul!”

Another airline was guilty of hiding costs in the fine print, the U.S. Department of Transportation said Wednesday.

AirTran Airways last fall advertised online $59 one-way fares. There were a couple of asterisks but not enough elaboration. The ads said that additional taxes, fees and exclusions would apply, the DOT said, but there was no explanation of what those taxes or fees amounted to until a would-be passenger clicked on the ad and then scrolled to the bottom of the page, where the information appeared in fine print.

That wasn’t transparent enough to satisfy the DOT, which requires that advertisements state the full price, including all carrier-imposed surcharges. Taxes and government-imposed fees may be listed separately if there is a prominent link next to the advertised price that takes people to the details of those taxes and government fees.

“Consumers have a right to know the full price they will be paying when they buy an airline ticket,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “We will continue to take enforcement action when our airline price advertising rules are violated.”

Without admitting to or denying a violation, AirTran told the DOT that it thought the ads were in compliance and said they should have been “properly vetted before publication.”

Though LaHood cried “foul,” the $60,000 fine probably amounted to less than AirTran pays for peanuts on a busy day.

But AirTran’s transgression isn’t likely to become fodder for Southwest’s TV commercials. Southwest bought AirTran last May and is busy merging the two operations into one.

AirTran told the DOT that Southwest now reviews all its ads and “subjects it to the same stringent compliance standards that apply to Southwest’s own advertising.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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