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A look at air travel this summer

Swissport employee Miroslaw Kaczorowski prepares to refuel a Southwest Airlines plane at the Oakland International Airport on February 24, 2011 in Oakland, Calif.

Bob Moon: If I may be so bold as to suggest the most popular summer pastime might no longer be baseball, but instead, throwing spitballs at the air travel industry. A lot of us are convinced it just gets worse ever year. It's been a year since Congress made the passenger bill of rights official. So how are we all, um, faring? Here to help us figure that out is George Hobica
at airfarewatchdog.com. George, thanks for traveling our way.

George Hobica: Good to talk with you again Bob.

Moon: Has the Passenger Bill of Rights made things better? It's been in place for how long now?

Hobica: Well, honestly, I don't think that that legislation affected that many people. I mean, it grabbed a lot of headlines, but the truth is, it was just a miniscule percentage of passengers who are stuck on a tarmac more than three hours. And I don't think there are a lot of rules -- especially in this latest round of DOT regulations that are headline-grabber rules -- but they don't affect that many people.

Moon: Yeah, the government recently announced these new provisions, mostly about hidden fees. I can never figure out exactly what I'm going to pay until I actually hit the last button. What do these new rules require from the airlines regarding fees?

Hobica: Well, one really good rule that's probably going to affect a lot of people -- and it's another one of these headline grabber regulations -- is that the airlines have to place all of their fees -- any kind of fee, even for pets, not just luggage, but food -- on one page on their website. And there has to be a link from the home page to this fee page. It's something that RyanAir in Europe has been doing for a very very long time. You go to RyanAir.com and you'll see a link called "fees" and you go to the fees -- and they're not shy about those fees. There's list of about 20 different fees, including for lap children, for example.

Moon: Now the airlines didn't do this without kicking and screaming. I noted in one of the stories I read that Spirit Airlines compared this to being akin to McDonald's being required to only advertise burgers, including the price of fries and a Coke. Is that fair?

Hobica: Everyone who advertises any kind of product or service -- and not just in the travel industry -- they never include all the fees. Your mobile phone company doesn't do it, cruise lines don't do it, rental cars don't do it, hotels don't do it. Why is the DOT going after the airlines alone? So, I mean, I think the airlines do have a gripe there.

Moon: And when do these new disclosure rules take affect?

Hobica: The new rules come into affect 120 days after publication in the federal register, whenever that is. And I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the airlines try to contest some of these rules. Some of these rules affect a lot of people and some really are just what I call "headline grabbers" and they only affect a few.

Moon: What's the state of getting there by air, heading into this travel season compared to last?

Hobica: Definitely, air fares are higher. But there have been some pop-up sales. For example, from almost every major hub to Honolulu for summer travel went to $391, round-trip, including all taxes. It's also good for winter travel. So there are pop-up sales that happen, it's just that they disappear very very quickly; that's why we call them "pop up."

Moon: It also seems to me that carriers are starting to hide their discounts as well. I'm going to New York soon and here's the way I got a good fare: With help from airfarewatchdog.com, I caught wind of a promotional offer that was going on with this particular airline. But I had to go to a website, sign up for something there in order to get a special code to use for discounted fare. And I got 30 percent off the fare. It was a really valuable code. Are you seeing more of that sort of thing?

Hobica: Yeah, absolutely Bob. I think the airlines are really trying to drive traffic to their sites, so they can eliminate the middleman -- the middlemen being sites like Kayak and Expedia and Trip Advisor and others.

Moon: But you really need to look for these things. They aren't flashing in big red lights on their websites. Sometimes they're on other sites.

Hobica: You go to sign up for the airline's e-mail alert streams and that's how you find out about them. So you go to the airline website and you'll see "Sign up for our e-mails!" and then they send you discount codes and promotions. I just tell people to sign up for airfare alerts. I mean, airfarewatchdog sends them out there. Many other sites that do it: Bing Travel does it, Trip Advisor Flights does it, Travelocity, Hot Wire, Expedia... They all send out airfare alerts. The best way though is absolutely to sign up for tweets. Tweets are much faster than any other method. E-mail unfortunately can be slow. When you have millions of e-mails that you have to send out, your servers can get clogged and by the time you see the e-mail, the sale is gone. So I would definitely look at Twitter as a way to find out about sales. And they are out there, absolutely. They just last for a few hours or sometimes a day and then they're gone.

Moon: Bottom line is be alert and be prepared to spend your money.

Hobica: Be alert and shop a lot.

Moon: George Hobica of airfarewatchdog.com. Thank you very much for your insight.

Hobica: It's a pleasure.

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