When revenue-hungry airlines play “chicken” with passengers

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Here’s a decision most of us will have to make the next time we fly: Should you splurge for a “premium” seat in economy class — an aisle or a window seat — or leave it to chance, and possibly end up in a middle seat?

It happened to Fred Thompson on a recent Delta Air Lines flight from New York to Detroit. “The Delta website would not let me choose a seat when I booked the ticket four weeks early,” he says. “The day before my flight, I still could not pick a seat. All the economy seats were taken and the only available seats were fee-based with prices ranging from $9 to $29.”

Thomson believed Delta was playing a game of chicken. You know, that’s where two motorists drive towards each other on a collision course, and one has to swerve or both of them will crash. The first to move — the “chicken” — loses.

And Thomson didn’t want to swerve by giving in to Delta’s offer of selling him a seat he’d already bought. That’s because he suspected it would eventually offer him the seat for free.

He was right.

“When I checked in, I was given a premium seat,” he says.

This game is taking place with greater frequency, as airlines try to monetize things that used to be given to passengers as part of their ticket. These extras, from early-boarding privileges to luggage fees to premium seats, can add millions of dollars of revenue to an airline’s coffers.

But not if passengers refuse to play the game.

For example, if all of the travelers on Thomson’s flight had refused to pay for “premium” seat assignments, then Delta would have had no choice but to give some of them these better seats at no extra charge. If no one ponies up more for “early boarding” privileges, then no one boards early — except the usual suspects, like elites and folks with disabilities — and thus, early boarding has no point.

Or take checked luggage, for which all but two major airlines now charge extra. Instead of shelling out more and checking the bag (and possibly having it lost by the airline) in-the-know passengers are hauling their belongings to the gate. There, they figure, the airline will have no choice but to gate-check their suitcase for free if it can’t fit on the plane.

That can be problematic. When a flight attendant doesn’t flag an XL bag, it becomes a giant obstacle to other passengers, slows down the boarding process and leads to altercations between travelers and crewmembers.

Of course, air travel shouldn’t be a game. A ticket should include a bare minimum of an assigned seat and the ability to check one bag (and yes, I realize Southwest Airlines doesn’t have assigned seating and gives you a “free” checked bag, but I’m on a roll here, so don’t interrupt me). My point is, this little airline scheme may be boosting short-term earnings, but it is also needlessly raising our blood pressure.

Consider what happened to Donna Ullner when she tried to buy tickets for her daughter and grandson through Allegiant Airlines. The base fare to fly from Lexington, Ky., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., came to $372. Federal tax? Another $27.

“Then there was a segment fee of $14, a security fee of $10, and on the seat assignment, I had a choice of $15.99 a seat per segment or $9.99 per segment or nothing with no seat assignment.”

After she paid $39 for seat assignments, Allegiant added a “convenience fee” of $46. Then a “TripFlex” fee of $46, which would have allowed her to cancel the tickets if she had to. Total fare: $568 — and that’s before Allegiant’s luggage fee ($29 per item, if you prepaid).

“Enough is enough,” she says. “This airline is insane.”

(Photo: hyper7pro/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • y_p_w

    Southwest has two complimentary checked bags.

  • DavidYoung2

    Yes, if NOBODY played the airline game, they wouldn’t play it.  But some people will always “break rank” an give in.  I think the bigger concern is that people are afraid of the ‘slippery slope,’ where airlines just don’t know when to stop.

    Now, here’s an interesting game of chicken.  The DOT institutes a rule that, on an airline-by-airline basis, if ANY fee or charge is considered “unreasonable,” then for one year that airline must include everything in the base fare.  That’s all taxes, preassinged seats, one checked bag, premium seating (except economy, business, first).

    So go ahead airline.  Try one more fee — maybe you’ll get it.  Or maybe you’ll crap out and lose them all for one year. 

  • y_p_w

    Of course there are plenty more.  Some of these issues have been discussed on this very same forum.

    Some oversized passengers take their chances that they can pay a single fare and there will be extra space on board so they don’t have to purchase a second fare.

    Some parents arrive at the gate with a lap child and a child seat, hoping that there will be A) enough empty seats that the child seat can be used without paying a child fare, and B) there will be an empty seat suitable for a car seat.  Unfortunately for the parents, sometimes the best seats for a child seat include the bulkhead seats, which are often preferred by passengers because there’s nobody to lean back into the knees.  I guess the airlines almost encourage people to take their chances because checking in the child seat (if there’s no spare seat) is free.

    We’re about to take our kid on a plane for the first time.  I just looked up the rules for a lap child on the airline, and they say a birth certificate is needed to verify the age (must be under two).  I wonder if the passport card we got for him would serve the same purpose.  I could deal with a passport card being lost, but losing a birth certificate is scary.  Or maybe they mean a photocopy would suffice.

  • absherlock

    Perhaps Congress should be more concerned with this kind of piracy…

  • jim6555

    The airlines spend $millions each year to lobby Congress. Unless a great number of constituents spend time and effort complaining to their representatives and senators, I see little chance for legislation to regulate fees that airlines charge. 

  • Raven_Altosk

    Yes, but don’t count on them checking your bag for free at the gate. I blissfully saw a gate agent tell a PAX with three “carryons” that she would have to pay for one of them to be checked.

    Of course, I’ve also seen gate agents allow others to haul on more that’s allowed or bags far too big to fix in the sizer.

    So…

    As much as I think government should be kept at a distance (like dirty underwear)…In the case of the airlines, I think there needs to be some kind of required fee structure. And by that I mean one that is actually implemented and used, not like the nonsense they have going on now. The price you see should be for the ticket, a seat assignment, etc.

  • LostinTravel

    And Jet Blue has one complimentary checked bag, but they do have extra room seats for a fee too.

  • LostinTravel

    I was never asked to prove my son’s age.  I ran into many more hassles when I bought a seat for him to sit in his car seat.  FA’s often wanted me to check the seat and hold him, but it was better for us all to have him sit in his own ticketed, and paid for, seat.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I’m not sure I would call a country that murders hundreds of female babies a year and subscribes to an archaic caste system “wonderful.” 

    Just sayin’, bro.

  • Kevin Mathews

    Passport worked for my son because it’s a legal US issued document…

  • TonyA_says

    Have airlines gone too far in their efforts to earn extra revenues? 

    Sure they have. But passengers have also gone too far to game the system.

  • HeyItsK

    It’s pretty easy to get duplicate certified copies of a birth certificate.  It cost me $8 each at the health department a few years ago.  That varies by state, of course, but it wasn’t difficult.

  • john4868

    Maybe it because I fly in Europe a lot where al a carte is the norm and not the exception but I don’t see anything wrong with al a carte pricing. It becomes a value argument and what does an individual place a high amount of value on.
     
    Do I really need the extra shirts or can I make due with a smaller bag? Since weight = expense for the airlines, they are incentivizing customers to pack lighter to save money.
     
    Is an aisle seat a “must have” or just a “nice to have?” For some, it’s a “must have” and they are willing to pay the additional amount to guarantee that seat. Others are willing to sit somewhere else as long as they arrive at their destination.
     
    I’d rather follow the model of lower fare costs and al a carte add-ons. It allows me to decide what is important to me and put my money there instead of having someone else do it for me.

  • Bob M

    The worm will turn, in the next meldown of our economy, or if something awful should happen and people stop travelling because of it, airlines will be begging people to fly, and at that point the ball may be in our playing field.

  • http://sojournsafaris.com/ Kenya safari

    This is a game of airlines trying to squeeze you for any money they can. Whatever happened to first come first served basis.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Funny.  I don’t see India mentioned anywhere in the story.

  • Asiansm Dan

    The point is INFORMATION and CONSISTENCY. In the US, Airlines are not clear about Extras and change happens too often. No-Frill Discount Europeans Airlines like Easyjet practice its for long times but very few complaints or dissatisfaction because the fees are very clear even before you try to make reservation… and the no-frill European Airlines are consistent about their fees, few change, even high but no surprise.
    In Europe when you go to legacy or national Airlines, you know it’s expensive but no surprise like Swiss, Lufthansa, Air France… they advertise the ALL-INCLUDED FARE and you know when go to No-Frill Airlines, it’s No-Frill with lot of extras.

  • Andrew F

    “weight = expense for the airlines”.  Wonderful!  I am under 150lb.  Suppose I have 3 bags, 50 lb each.  Another pax is 250lb with one bag.  Same total weight.  I will most likely pay $50 for 2nd bag, $100 for 3rd.  Sounds fair?

    I’m all for “a la carte” pricing if it is a) transparent, b) truly optional and c) FAIR.  Airlines’ version is neither.

  • MikeInCtown

    Taxes and fees are crazy, but so are the airlines manipulating fares. Went looking for a ticket round trip to Vegas in April. At the time I could have bought from PIT to LAS R/T for $198 plus taxes. the taxes were $60 a person!!! out of CLE, the same flights are over $400 plus taxes. CLE is supposed to be a hub for Continental, so why does it cost double???

  • http://twitter.com/3DisKids Jeremy Plumley

    I’m sick of the major airlines nickel and diming us to death! At least when I am flying a low cost discount airline in Europe I expect to pay for every little thing and get nothing, but over the holidays I took several flights on United, Continental and Lufthansa. The United and Continental flights were several notches below the Lufthansa ones. On a 4.5 hour flight with Continental we received one drink service, and not even one bag of peanuts. And there was a charge to use the in flight entertainment (DirecTV)On a two hour flight with Lufthansa we got two drink services and a hot snack! 

    It has gotten ridiculous! 

  • Kotch11

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could know all these fees in advance when we make plans months in advance? 
    I would like (when I’m booking well in advance) not to have to pick a seat in the back (even if I get an aisle) and then later be offered
    seats (for a fee) where I would like to be.
    Let’s see what these new inclusive fares do.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Funny, I was in the same situation as Mr. Thomson and Ms. Ullner right before the New Year.  I had to make reservations for 3 to attend a funeral and couldn’t get assigned seats unless I paid for the premium seats.  (Same time as that story about the mother and children getting last minute tickets to Cancun right before Thanksgiving.)  This was United/US Airways.  I understood not getting seats on US Airways, since I bought the tickets through United, but United?  What was *that* all about?

    I paid for the premium seats – on the way TO the funeral.  Planes were packed, so I’m glad I did so.  We needed that peace of mind.  I decided to call their bluff on the way BACK, play chicken and check in at the airport.  Wow.  I’ve never flown First Class before – which is where they ended up putting the 3 of us on one of the legs.  Buck, buck, buck, bu-kaw!  Sometimes playing chicken wins.

  • Pdoggs

    If I’ve bought a ticket, I’ve bought a seat, I shouldn’t have to pay for the seat twice.  Perhaps the more preferred seats should be priced more to begin with while the rest of us can book a regular seat and get a seat assignment.

    I’m fine with paying for luggage though.  Does it stink?  Yes BUT perhaps sooner or later people will learn to pack.  I have friends who go to Mexico for a week and take 2 suitcases, one full of clothes and 1 full of shoes.  No one needs to take that much stuff.  I do feel carryons need to be better regulated and signs put up saying that you and you alone are responsible for putting your bag up.  Not the flight attendant, not another passenger (unless they offer), YOU.  Can’t lift your bag?  Then you’ll need to check it and that should cost you. 

  • IGoEverywhere

    You have a choice to fly or not to. You then have a choice of convenience or chance. You then have a choice of luggage checked or nudety upon arrival. Right now, my least favorite airline to fly is Southwest, but they seem to be doing thing almost correctly.

  • Aaron Gold

    An airline ticket that doesn’t include a checked bag is ridiculous. An airline ticket that doesn’t include a seat assignment is fraud. Especially considering almost every flight I go on is overbooked.
    Where is the Fed in all this?

  • suzyblew

    linking in with the code share story the other day.  My inlaws booked flights from MAN to MCO in July for travel December/January.  These were Virgin flights but booked as a code share with Continental.  They also made seat allocations on booking.  However when they can came to travel, they could not check in online and at the airport their seats were not honored and they were put in middle seats.  Virgin also advised they could not honor the seat reservations on the return leg advising Continental had not passed them on. (they also claimed the plane had changed, despite the same one being on the route as everyday!).  In the end I paid for them to have extra leg room seats as it was the only way they could get a window and aisle at $50 each.

  • travellinggerry

    I am a Star Gold Member with Star Alliance. Top Tier with Air Canada. UA & US Air (ugh) used to bump me into Premium Plus automatically but not refuse to do so unless I pay the premium. I refuse to do this on principal (I do usually get an aisle seat though).
    What infuriates me is seeing passangers, who  fly a couple of times a year, assigned the premium seats just before boarding while thier Gold Members sit in the back. The system stinks..plain & simple. I am close to becoming a Million Mile Member of Air Canada. Once I have that, I will be guaranteed Gold Status for life, At that time, I will purchase the best priced tickets & will show my loyalty to AC & Star Allience as they are showing theirs to me. Which is less & less each year.Their outlook has become like a bank. How good are you 10 seconds ago. Forfet 20+ years of Loyalty. It means nothing to them any longer.

  • john4868

    Unfortunately, the PC police would never allow pricing by weight. The morbidly obese would claim exception under ADA and the airlines would spend more money on lawyer fees than they would ever make.
     
    I completely agree on the truly optional statement. Looking at the Ullner example… the fed tax, security fee and convenience fees should have been included in the quoted fair. You simply cannot avoid them. On the other hand, the advanced seat assignment & tripflex fees are all value added. Ullner received something she valued in return for the additional money and could have flown without them.
     
    Since all airlines are now required to list optional fees on an obvious link on their website, it’s hard to argue that they aren’t transparent. You just have to look and not assume something is included.
     
    Fair is a relative word. You could ask quite a number of people and get completely different answers on what is fair or not.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    Can you explain?          

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    Except for the baggage weigh issue are there any other issues that you have with a la carte pricing?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    Once again, I thnk Chris charaterization of the business elements is misguided.  I have no issues paying more for a premium seat.  If you pay for a regular seat and you get upraded then you’ve won th upgrade lottery.  Elites do it all the time

    The only issue is, if the seat type you booked is available, you should be given the seat assignment immediately.

  • http://www.pipdigital.com Nancy Dickinson

    I have RA so I always request the bulkhead due to my disability.  I simply can’t handle the cramped seating and it causes me a tremendous amount of pain and swollen feet and ankles.  I don’t pay extra and while I don’t like having to find someplace to put my things (since bulkhead overhead is ALWAYS filled with other people’s stuff who don’t want to put it over their own heads in their own bins) I do like that I don’t pay extra for it.

    I don’t recommend this for everyone as the airlines aren’t asking me (yet!) for proof of disability and I don’t want them to start.

    However, I’d sit elsewhere in the plane if I was assured of an aisle seat so I could stretch out my legs when I needed to do so.  I just don’t want to have to pay for the “privilege” of sitting on the aisle.

  • TonyA_says

    Carver, just read the archives of this website and you’ll have a sample of them.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HMW3OTJSBDWWRKIEKEKWWM7BEA bc

    Because it’s smarmy travel agency spamming the comments. Hopefully, Chris will remove this. 

  • TouchyFeely

    Really people, they’re just giving us the system we asked for.  We’ve been voting with our dollars for decades now, and we have exactly what we deserve. 

  • bodega3

    The issue with an ID with a lap child is to prove that child is under the age of 2 at the time of the flight.  It is more of an issue to prove the age when the child gets to be 15 months on, unless the child is large for their age.  A passport card is fine.

  • TouchyFeely

    “some people”?  Really?  Try everyone.  We vote with our dollars and customers ALWAYS choose the lowest fare on the screen when they browse.  They pay zero attention to the other fees, and then complain when they get screwed.

    And then they do it all over again the next time they fly.

  • TouchyFeely

    Why?  You can get a duplicate birth certificate in most cases with a phone call or trip to the county website.  How many hoops do you have to jump through for a passport?

  • TouchyFeely

    Just more proof how entitled and stupid we Americans are.  Sad.

  • john4868

    I’m pretty sure that under ADA the airlines can’t require proof of disability but one of the lawyers on the site can tell me I’m wrong.

  • y_p_w

    It’s Southwest.  They’re asking for proof of age under 2 for eligibility as a lap child.  They only specifically mention a birth certificate, but I’m guessing they really mean any kind of official document with age.  We’ve got a passport card and the passport should be coming any day now.  I think I can also get a California ID at the DMV.

    http://www.southwest.com/html/customer-service/family/baby-on-board-pol.html

    They also have rules for online checkin of infants.  They need advanced age verification  I think they also have infant fares, but may need to be called in.  Apparently age verification means showing ID at the counter, which then is entered into a customer account for the child.  Or a photocopy of an ID or birth certificate can be sent in to their office in Dallas.

  • Steve_in_WI

    I’d say yes and no. In the example of Allegiant, I’d say that they should not be allowed to charge a “convenience fee” to everyone who buys a ticket anywhere except a ticket office (which must be, what, 99% of their passengers). I would also say that airlines which assign seats should be required to allow passengers to select a seat at no extra charge. (I would also point out that several of the fees Ms. Ullner mentioned are taxes imposed by the government, and you’ll have to pay those no matter which carrier you fly. I’m not arguing for or against them, but it’s unfair to blame the airlines for those. Also, I’m not familiar with TripFlex but it sounds like that was an optional fee she decided to pay for the privilege of being able to cancel her tickets.)

     I do agree that some airlines have gotten out of hand with what they consider to be a premium seat; Delta is definitely the worst. I don’t mind something like United’s Economy Plus, where a relatively small portion of the plane costs extra and where the seats are demonstrably better than regular economy. Charging extra to reserve a non-middle seat is ridiculous.

    I have no problem with the unbundling of checked baggage fees. Plenty of people fly without checking a bag (I do on business trips and about 50% of my leisure trips), so why should they pay for something they don’t need? I generally like Southwest, but “bags fly free” is a little misleading. It’s really “the cost of checking bags is bundled into the ticket.”

  • y_p_w

    I’ve got plenty of copies.  I’ve rather taken an interest in vital records and have ordered at least one copy from each office (city, county, state) that can issue a certified copy of my child’s birth certificate.

    However, my issue isn’t with replacement, which is easy.  I’m more worried about identity theft should it be lost and someone finds it.  Identity fraud with birth certificates is quite common.

    As for $8, it’s more like $18 now, and that’s without the notary fee if done through the mail (The California Dept of Public Health has no public counter).  The county charges more than $22.

  • TonyA_says

    I’m not sure if this was mentioned already, but another reason why these so-called ancillary fees are so well loved by the airlines is because it makes it harder for consumers to compare fares between airlines.

    Of course, come 24JAN (or 26JAN) that all changes.

  • bodega3

    This varies from county to county on ease of obtaining the BC and the cost.

  • Tufbroad

    Maybe you should wear your bags.  ha ha ha

  • Dutch Harbor

    It is my choice to not fly.  Fortunately, I do not have to travel for work, I can visit family via train travel or car, and I have no overwhelming desire to go to any countries on the other side of the Atlantic or Pacific.  I realize I am giving up time and convenience but this is my quiet stand against the insanity of air travel these days and also the insanity of the TSA.  I wish it was a choice more people could make. 

  • Tufbroad

    My son flew to South America last September. Below is his experience regarding his flight.
    “I got a flight to Ecuador with Continental airlines and was surprised with how cheap they are. No free meals on that 4+ hour flight to Houston except for food for sale and no free movies or TV watching where they have a credit card you can swipe in front of the seat in front of you for $5.99 for 2 hours of viewing or $7.99 if your flight is longer. Just nickel and diming the passengers and I didn’t see one passenger exchange money on that flight. Not only that but they charged me $45 for my second suitcase which I was unaware of since my travel agent (flight center) said only on the flight back in Peru would they charge $50 for the second suitcase but I should have read the fine print myself instead of relying on them. Don’t think it would have changed anything though. They gave a chintzy little meal on the Houston to Quito which was 5 hours long”.

  • whhump2

    Do the airlines or any consumer agencies provide guidelines for reimbursement to ticketed passengers who depart the gate late due to overhead luggage striking a passenger plus engine problems, thereby missing scheduled connections and ultimately never arriving at destination on scheduled date?

  • y_p_w

    I’m not sure because some businesses or agencies can get really particular.  When I got my kid the passport/passport card, my wife and I had to show government ID at the acceptance facility.  The State Dept lists a bunch of different documents, and they require a photocopy of the front and back of each document presented to the acceptance agent be sent with the application/photo/fee.  We needed to prepare the photocopies before we arrived.

    The State Dept list didn’t specifically say passport cards were OK, but when I called the State Dept passport hotline, I was told that a passport card is considered equivalent to a passport.  When I asked about a specific government ID (one that the TSA accepts as ID) that wasn’t specifically on the list, the operator asked my if my wife had another document.

    Sometimes when there are instructions to follow, I’ve found that people can be real sticklers for the letter of the rule/law.