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DOT fines Orbitz $60,000 for deceptive advertising

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has fined Orbitz, the online travel agency, $60,000 for violating rules prohibiting deceptive advertising in air travel.

“Consumers have a right to know the full price they will be paying for air fares,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement announcing the fine.

According to DOT, the company violated government regulations earlier this year by displaying advertisements on its website that did not adequately disclose required information on additional taxes and fees.

“The rules say they can break taxes and fees out separately but that there must be a prominent link that takes consumers directly to that information,” said DOT spokesman Bill Mosley. “We found that consumers weren’t notified of the charges until they arrived at the following page and scrolled down to the bottom.

“The information was a little harder to find than we’d expect them to make it,” Mosley told msnbc.com.

DOT also determined that the company engaged in deceptive advertising by displaying fares that were no longer available. “We don’t want them to advertise a low fare to lure consumers into a website where they can’t find that fare, but there are higher fares available,” Mosley said.

In accepting DOT’s ruling, Orbitz cited mitigating factors, including “a lack of clear and consistent guidance to carriers and ticket agents” on how to comply with the rule as well as a “data processing” issue that caused older, but unavailable, fares to show up. Orbitz also stated that consumers were warned that unavailable fares were considered “found” fares — that is, low fares recently found by other users — and might no longer be available for purchase.

“Orbitz is in compliance with DOT advertising requirements and the glitch that resulted in how fares were displayed for a short period of time earlier this year has been addressed,” said spokesperson Marita Hudson Thomas.

The issue of deceptive advertising in air travel continues to be a major focus at DOT. In August, the agency fined JetBlue Airways  $50,000 for advertising violations; in September, it took similar action and fined Virgin Atlantic Airways the same amount.

In fact, when other violations, such as code-share disclosures and accessibility issues are included, the agency has assessed $4.8 million in fines in 49 consent orders since Jan. 1, said Mosley.

More fines for violations of advertising regulations are likely in the future given pending rules requiring that all advertised fares include government taxes and fees without making consumers follow links or hunt for fine print.

That rule, initially proposed for later this month, will go into effect Jan. 24, 2012.

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.