The airline industry is profitable again, thanks in no small part to the billions of dollars in fees it collects from passengers every year. And it’s not just reservation change fees ($2.3 billion), checked baggage ($2.7 billion) and “miscellaneous” fees (almost $3 billion) that air travelers shelled out in 2009; now carriers are getting even more creative with their charges, imposing them for everything from redeeming frequent flier miles to carrying a bag on the plane.
Worse, the extras often come as a complete surprise, revealed only at the end of the purchase — and in some cases, not until a passenger arrives at the airport.
You want to check a bag? That’ll be $25. Need a confirmed seat reservation? Twenty bucks, please. An in-flight meal? Here’s the menu — we only take credit cards.
A new survey of air travelers found that two-thirds of respondents said they had been broadsided at the airport by unexpected charges. “Airlines have become addicted to fees,” says Charles Leocha, president of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a Washington-based organization that conducted the poll. So his organization has teamed up with a coalition of other travel groups, including the American Society of Travel Agents and Business Travel Coalition, to do something about it. They’ve launched a site, Mad As Hell About Hidden Fees and are pushing the government to tighten rules about fee disclosure.
But why wait for a law to be passed? Here are some of the newest, and most egregious, airline fees and how to escape them on your next flight.
Carry-on baggage fee
Who charges it: Spirit Airlines
How much: $30 online, $45 at the gate
Last month, Spirit Airlines, a small, Fort Lauderdale-based carrier that operates in the Northeast and Caribbean, shocked air travelers when it introduced a carry-on fee. Its chief executive, Ben Baldanza, said the fee would offer air travelers more options, and that “the basis for this new fee was founded in improved customer service.” Baldanza noted that it takes time to adjust to new fees, but was confident that passengers would come around to them eventually. “Long ago people would have thought that restaurants would cross a line if they asked customers to clean their own table,” he said. “Yet millions of customers do this every day at McDonalds and other fast food places.” There’s no word on how profitable the carry-on charges have been for Spirit. A spokeswoman for Spirit today said the fee was “going well.”
How to escape the fee: Downsize your carry-on. Anything smaller than 16 x 14 x 12, like a purse or computer bag, that can fit under your airline seat, is still free on Spirit. If you can’t, there are still a lot of other airlines to choose from that haven’t added this fee – yet.
Priority boarding fee
Who charges it: American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, others
How much: $9+
Before airline executives discovered they could make more money by selling priority boarding, you could count on embarking in a predictable order: People with special needs, families with young children, first class and frequent fliers, followed by everyone else. But now you can pay a little extra and move to the front of the line. The latest airline to charge for early boarding is American, which will give you Group 1 general boarding privileges and several other benefits, including a reduced change fee for tickets, for a fee. Asked about the success of the program, which was introduced earlier this summer, an airline spokesman said the numbers were “proprietary.” Southwest Airlines offers a similar “Early Bird” program that gives you priority boarding. The question is, what happens if a program like this really catches on, and everyone wants to board first? Will it just become a boarding fee?