DOT Gets Tough on Twitter: Fines Spirit Airlines

Spirit Airlines' use of sent Twitter feeds announcing $9 each-way fares are among the reasons the Department of Transportation (DOT) fined Spirit $50,000 for violating federal aviation laws and the Department’s rules prohibiting deceptive price advertising in air travel.

“Consumers have a right to know the full price they will be paying when they buy an airline ticket,” said DOT Secretary Ray LaHood.  “We expect airlines to treat their passengers fairly, and we will take enforcement action when they violate our price advertising rules.”

The DOT says in June 2011 Spirit used billboards and hand-held posters to advertise new service from Los Angeles that contained an asterisk next to the advertised fare. On the billboards, the asterisk led to small print which stated that additional taxes, fees and conditions would apply, but did not disclose the amount of those taxes and fees. The posters did not include any information about the taxes and fees or their amounts, DOT says.

In addition, Spirit sent Twitter feeds announcing $9 each-way fares. The consumer who clicked on the link that was provided was taken to a page on Spirit’s website where the carrier disclosed for the first time that these fares did not include all taxes and fees, and that they were subject to a roundtrip purchase requirement, DOT says. Only after clicking on a second link, which took readers to the bottom of the page, was the amount of additional taxes and fees disclosed, DOT says.

DOT rules require any advertising that includes a price for air transportation to state the full price to be paid by the consumer, including all carrier-imposed surcharges. The only exceptions currently allowed are government-imposed taxes and fees that are assessed on a per-passenger basis, such as passenger facility charges, which may be stated separately from the advertised fare but must be clearly disclosed in the advertisement so that passengers can easily determine the full price they must pay.

DOT also says internet fare listings may disclose these separate taxes and fees through a prominent link next to the fare stating that government taxes and fees are extra, and the link must take the viewer directly to information where the type and amount of taxes and fees are displayed. In print advertisements, including billboards and posters, an asterisk or other symbol placed next to the advertised fare may refer the reader to the bottom of the advertisement where the type and amount of the fees may be stated separately, in type large enough so that passing consumers can read the information, DOT says.

In addition, if carriers advertise an each-way fare that is available only if the consumer purchases a roundtrip ticket, the advertisements must clearly and conspicuously state the roundtrip purchase requirement.

DOT’s recently adopted consumer rule seeks to enhance protections for air travelers and requires carriers to include all government taxes and fees in every advertised fare beginning Jan. 24, 2012.