After a week of obvious signalling between Qantas/Jetstar and Virgin Blue about the need for extra charges because of the fuel crisis, air travellers still aren’t being told who is going to do what and for how much money to the fares.

Will your free baggage allowance still masquerade as being free if one carrier wants to charge $20 to stick it in the hold (the ploy of the week in the US) or a “convenience” fee for online bookings for airlines that refuse to sell any other way anyhow, which is where the Euro carriers are headed?

Where is John Cleese and his famous parody of bankers devising a “fee fee” when he should be exposing the airlines?

The Australian carriers have been softening the public up for higher fees and fares all week while appearing to send signals back and forth through the media as to what they were variously thinking of doing, or expecting to happen.

But neither camp wants to be first with a new fixed charge that the other decides not to impose, or undercuts.

Meanwhile fares did go up, except that they didn’t appear to. On the left-hand columns of the booking screens for the carriers, you used to see lots of cheaper, less flexible fares, with the full fares on the right.

But, surprise, most of the cheap fares on the left are gone, even in June, which is usually a quiet month in which the airlines will do anything to rake in a few dollars for a seat that would otherwise take off unoccupied.

So the average fare for a Qantas or Virgin Blue trip has already gone up by more than some analysts claim to be essential for the latter to survive.

Under ACCC rules, domestic airlines have to sell on the full price of the trip, while the customer can expand the full price to see details of the extra charges and levies.

But if the airlines use the device of a new fee for a checked bag that not all customers will need, that rule can be eroded further than it already has been by the extra $6.60 credit card fee on a Qantas booking or its $3 equivalent on Virgin Blue.

The more optional or compulsory extras come into play, the more obscure the real price.

While Qantas and Virgin Blue fly in circles waiting for each other to sink in the claws first, Tiger is sending mixed signals about its future.

A week after saying it wouldn’t cut any routes, it cancelled its Newcastle flights, and a few days after deleting the schedule and booking options for flights between Melbourne and several Queensland centres from late October it said it would continue to fly those routes as soon as it had finished reviewing its operations.

A “review” which promises to keep routes which are being reviewed and have already been suspended from the booking site suggests that something is being lost in the telling.

A Tiger spokesman rejected this suggestion, saying it would add another three jets to its four jet Australian fleet by the end of the year, and restore the availability of routes when it had a timetable. But not to Newcastle.

Peter Fray

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