Don't be confused. Airlines and travel agents may not advertise an airfare as "free" if consumers are liable for the payment of fees to book the flight, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) said in a guidance for carriers and agents. The DOT said it will give carriers and agents 60 days to modify their ads and comply with its policy.
The Department’s new airfare advertising rule, which took effect on Jan. 26, 2012, requires every advertised price for airfares to state the entire price to be paid by consumers, the DOT noted.
"This means that all mandatory government-imposed taxes and fees as well as mandatory carrier-imposed charges must be included in the advertised price the first time an airfare is presented to consumers. If a seller of air transportation advertises an airfare as 'free' but then requires the consumer to make any monetary payment to obtain the free travel, that seller would be violating the Department’s airfare advertising rule," DOT says.
"Our rule says the ticket price presented to consumers must be the full price,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “If a flight is billed as ‘free,’ it needs to stay that way from booking to boarding – no one should have to pay hundreds of dollars for a flight that they thought they were getting for free.” In the past, flights advertised as “free” may in fact have cost the consumer a substantial amount of money, especially on international flights where taxes could amount to hundreds of dollars, DOT says.
In its guidance, the Department said that nothing prevents an airline from stating that the air transportation is “free of carrier charges” or “without carrier charges” if this is accurate and taxes and government fees are properly disclosed.
"Advertisements relating to mileage awards may not indicate that a given mileage amount may be exchanged for a free ticket unless the award actually does allow the consumer to travel without any financial cost. If consumers must pay taxes or airline-imposed fees when booking a flight using frequent-flyer miles, the ad must display at least the minimum amount of government taxes and mandatory carrier-imposed fees that could apply to that itinerary together with the mileage award levels, and the fees must be displayed as prominently as the mileage requirements," DOT said.
The DOT said it will give carriers and agents 60 days to modify their ads, and will pursue enforcement action after that date against companies that do not comply.