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Airline passengers today struggle to navigate a confusing web of fees and extra charges

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - The Department of Transportation on Wednesday proposed a new set of rules aimed at protecting airline passengers by requiring more disclosure of airline fees. Here are some common questions regarding the plethora of fees that fliers face today:

Q: When was the first checked bag fee?

A: American Airlines in May 2008 became the first major U.S. carrier to charge a fee for checking a suitcase. (Discount airlines like Allegiant and Spirit already had such a fee.) The other large airlines quickly followed.

Q: Why did they do it?

A: In 2004, U.S. airlines were paying an average of $1.15 a gallon for jet fuel. By May of 2008, the cost had nearly tripled to $3.23 a gallon. Airlines that year burned through nearly 18 billion gallons of fuel. Passengers make decisions whether to fly based on price, and the bag fees were a way for airlines to collect more money without jacking up ticket prices and scaring away customers.

Q: How much money does that bring in for the airlines?

A: The typical bag fee is $25 for the first checked suitcase, $35 for the second. That added up to $3.4 billion last year. Airlines collected another $2.8 billion from flight change fees, typically $200.

Q: Are there other fees?

A: Yes, too many to easily count. Most airlines offer early boarding, priority security screening and extra legroom for a fee. Some airlines charge for any advance seat assignment. Others charge to place a bag in the overhead bin. Some charge extra for water or soda.

Q: Don't consumers know about these fees prior to booking?

A: Most fliers now know that airlines charge some type of fee for checking luggage. The other fees are often a surprise. Airlines are required to post charts with all their fees on their websites, but they can often be hard to find, and confusing. For instance, United Airlines charges $9 to $299 for extra legroom, the price fluctuating depending on length of the trip and demand for that flight. Passengers booking tickets through Expedia or Orbitz, or searching on sites like Kayak aren't given the same details.

Q: How would this latest proposed rule change that?

A: The third-party sites and airfare search aggregators would, for the first time, have to disclose the fees. Additionally, airlines would have to calculate fees for a passenger's specific flight, factoring in any elite status.

Q: What about taxes and government fees?

A: Two years ago, the DOT required airlines to include taxes and related government fees in the price shown for flights, including all advertisements. Previously, airlines would only display the base fare, often giving passengers sticker shock when they booked. The airlines are now going to Congress to try and reverse that rule saying it's not fair. Department stores, they argue, don't have to include sales tax in the advertised price of a pair of jeans. The bill even has its own Orwellian doublespeak name: the Transparent Airfares Act.

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Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.

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