Are airlines lying about boarding pass fees?

When Marius Vogelfanger got an email from Ryanair before a recent flight from Bergamo Airport, near Milan, Italy, he thought it was sending it to him as a courtesy.

“Don’t forget to check-in on line from 15 days up to 4 hours prior to your scheduled flight departure,” it said.

But the email failed to tell Vogelfanger, a construction professional who works in Washington, what would happen if he and his travel companion failed to check in online.

When they arrived at the airport, they were given some bad news by an airline representative: They’d have to print out their boarding passes, and it would cost them.

“We were told to go to the cashier and pay 120 euro for the printing of two boarding passes,” he says. “We paid this outrageous amount since we had no choice. We had to be on that flight.”

Sixty euro ($72) to print out a boarding pass? What are they smoking at Ryanair?

Before I get to the answer, here’s the sad truth: The boarding pass fee isn’t new, although many passengers like Vogelfanger will experience it for the first time this summer. The discount airline quietly added the fee late last year. Spirit Air charges a more modest $5 to print a boarding pass and $1 to use its electronic kiosks at the airport.

What’s new is that this funny airline math is leading to windfall profits. For example, when Spirit Air reported its latest quarterly numbers, it noted that the average base ticket revenue per passenger flight segment slipped 1.1 percent to $81. But at the same time, the average non-ticket revenue jumped 18.6 percent to $51 per passenger flight segment.

In other words, the average Spirit ticket costs $81, but the average passenger also pays $51 in fees, including, at times, the silly print-a-boarding-pass fee.

These so-called “ancillary” fees are big business for the airline industry. A recent survey found that worldwide, the airline industry collected $22.6 billion in ancillary revenues last year, up 66 percent from two years ago.

If you’re a laissez-faire free marketer, you’re probably saying to yourself: “Isn’t that great? The airline industry has finally figured out a way to make money?”

Not so fast. I’m a believer in the free market, too, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

And not telling Vogelfanger he’ll have to shell out another $72 to print out a boarding pass — that’s the wrong way. But when he complained to Ryanair, it said it would keep his money, thanks very much, even though he’d paid more for the passes than for the original ticket.

I’ll say it again. The boarding passes cost more than the ticket.

“The answer was that we didn’t follow their policy and therefore no refund is granted, nor any explanation or apology,” he says.

Granted, Ryanair discloses the boarding pass printout fees on its website, as does Spirit. But who has the time to surf the Internet, pre-flight? Ryanair and airlines like it, know that. They’re profiting from it.

Beyond that, though, something else has quietly slipped away from the discussion of airline fees: Whatever happened to common sense?

Do you really expect us to believe that a sliver of paper and a little printer ink costs $72? Or even $5?

I can’t make that case, sorry.

What we have here is the free market run amok, one boarding pass at a time. It’s a perversion of capitalism, not unlike the military being billed $500 for a screwdriver. It happens because an unscrupulous company thinks we aren’t paying attention, and in many instances, we aren’t.

Of course it doesn’t cost $72 to print a sheet of paper. It doesn’t take much common sense to know that. It’s remarkable that no regulatory agency — here or in Europe — has stepped forward to say, “That’s ridiculous. Enough, already.”

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.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Google Plus

  • flutiefan

    “Do you really expect us to believe that a sliver of paper and a little printer ink costs $72? Or even $5?”

    i don’t believe that my Coke at the movies costs $6.95, or even $2.95, but that’s sure as heck what the theater charges. can you get on that next, Chris? it makes just as much sense…

  • Michael__K

    You mean the price of a Coke at the movie theatre isn’t posted?

    Do you pay them the posted $6.95, and then they ask you for a mug? What mug? Didn’t you study their website before you went to the movies? It’s bring your own mug or else you owe an extra $25 for a souvenir cup. And you can’t change your mind and get your $6.95 back. Sorry.

  • TonyA_says

    They need to change from e-ticketing to i-ticketing.
    I think you know what I mean by the “I” :-)

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    That’s crazy! Unless people are just using their mobile devices / ipads? I’d NEVER arrive at the airport without something…

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    I’ve done lots of cheap one-ways in my time. But I’ll build it into my itinerary to get to a computer 24 hours before my departure, least of all to check to make sure the flight is still on. If you’re close enough to an airport, you’re close enough to a computer…

  • http://www.facebook.com/CarverFarrow Carver Clark Farrow

    Without knowing how much Ryanair and the others would charge, your post conveys no information of note.

    The point that you fail to grasp is that on any given day a budget airline might be great or it might not be. You simply have to know the rules and make the comparison ensuring that the comparison is truly apples to apples.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CarverFarrow Carver Clark Farrow

    yes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CarverFarrow Carver Clark Farrow

    That’s insane. That said, who in this day and age just shows up at the airport with no paperwork?
    ——————————————————–
    Perhaps someone intending to use the Kiosk to print a boarding pass.

  • johnb78

    You’re wrong. We know, obviously, that Ryanair’s fee for the journey would be at least $0. Even if the fare is $1, only a terminal masochist would be unwilling to pay the trivial difference between that and $20 each way to avoid the budget airline experience.

    Budget airlines’ existence is great, as is the existence of the required number of terminal masochists and people who don’t know the rules to keep them in business. But it’s rare that they’ll work out significantly cheaper than a “full-fare” carrier.

    The only exception is when the “full” fare carrier quotes fees in the multiple hundreds for a short trip (e.g. a Friday evening flight booked on the same Friday morning) – at that point, budget airlines can become price competitive. Although they often *still* aren’t, since obviously they’d be daft not to jack their fares up at peak times too.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    You know what they say about people who “ass+u=me”….

  • flutiefan

    ;) love it!

    p.s. when i say “do you have an e-ticket?” they look at me as if i’d just asked them if they’re from Mars.

  • flutiefan

    i’d say less than half of those who have no papers actually have their confirm # saved on their phone or something. and then when the date is wrong or they show up at the wrong airport (happens ALL the time), they say it’s my fault and refuse to accept responsibility.

  • flutiefan

    but isn’t it a good idea to have your confirmation paper, at least saved on your phone, to be able to use the kiosk? sometimes credit cards are de-magnitized and don’t work.

  • TonyA_says

    The airlines should charge a $25 e-ticket lookup fee (with $15 going to the desk agent). The rules actually state the pax must give their e-ticket # (or RLOC for some carriers) AND an suitable ID.
    They have gotten so used in just coming to the airport with just their blank stares :-)

  • judyserienagy

    Another beautiful example of outrageous. Why do people continue to patronize these kinds of companies?

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

    Your post continued to make unfounded assertions.

    As far it it being rare that they work out better than a full service airlines, how do you support that statement or it is something that you just felt and everyone else should accept.

    I personally wouldn’t fly Ryanair. However, to make a blanket statement that no one should reflects a certain arrogance that your way of traveling is the only way.

    When I travel I prefer a certain level of comfort and luxury. I generally do 4 star hotels. One buddy like greater comfort and luxury and he prefers five star hotels, while another can sleep anywhere. He is happy at a hostel. While I refuse to step foot in a hostel, it would be arrogant presumption on my part to call him or the other occupants “terminal masochists” because it doesn’t fit into my own limited world view.

    You also fail to grasp that while a budget carrier may or may not be the best choice for that particular route, it may be for another route. At what point in the differential sufficient that you would consider it reasonable to fly a budget airline. $20? $30? $40? $100. These are arbitrary bright lines for which reasonable people may differ.

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

    Who’s assuming.

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

    There are many good ideas. It comes down to risk tolerance and likelihood of having problems. How often do all of your credit card get de-magnitized?

    At the AA kiosks you can use your credit card, ATM card, passport, or in my case, the frequent flier number that I’ve had since the early 90s. The only time I’ve ever had an issue, was pre-911 when I was a consultant and the travel consultant booked me under the name Sarrow.

    Now having said that, if I am traveling on a code-share then I will absolutely have all of my papework because I figure there is a much greater chance of drama as the number of entities increase.

    I would also have my paperwork if I booked travel other than on the providers website. However, the last time that happened was in the early 2000’s.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_45YLMSZ53UDITHGWHQR3LN4QEU Howard

    What if the fee was $2000. If you want to sit while waiting for your flight it’s $500. What if want to take a leak on the flight it’s $100. What if every airline does this? How far you want to take this? Customers have every right to complain. Sadly we’re headed to a future where you pay $1 initially for absolutely anything, then are piecemealed by addons endlessly. Oh, you want a fork with dinner? That’s $5. How many fees to people want to have to keep track of? Fees work, are massively profitable, and as the comment here show have endless people that can’t see the forest for the trees.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_45YLMSZ53UDITHGWHQR3LN4QEU Howard

    Until they all do it… because nobody said anything.

  • Thomas Ralph

    I can’t accept either option. The fees are adequately disclosed and are not a scam. If people choose to follow Ryanair’s established processes, they will be rewarded by lower fees. Me, I choose not to fly Ryanair.

  • Michael__K


    I’ll build it into my itinerary to get to a computer 24 hours before my departure

    I generally do too. The topic here was printers. I’ve never booked on an ultra-discount carrier and I don’t ever intend to. And I don’t stress when the hotel printer fails or spits out a boarding pass that is arguably less than completely legible (neither of which is unusual).

    And if getting to a computer 24 hours in advance means spending an extra night where you didn’t otherwise intend to, then you won’t necessarily come out ahead.

    And I submit that all of this is besides the point if the fee isn’t disclosed at the point of sale, which isn’t always the internet.

  • Michael__K

    Friday May 18, 2012:
    “Ryanair shuts website but demands online check-in”

    Consumer groups have criticised Ryanair for temporarily closing its website over one of the busiest weekends of the year – yet refusing to waive penalties for passengers who fail to check in online.

    Europe’s biggest budget carrier shut down the Ryanair.com online check-in facility at 4pm today for what the airline describes as “upgrade maintenance”.

    It is due to re-open at noon on Sunday.

    During the time the airline is offline, more than one-third of a million passengers are booked to fly with the Irish carrier.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/ryanair-shuts-website-but-demands-online-checkin-7766857.html

  • emanon256

    There is an app for that. :)

  • emanon256

    Wrong Airport! WOW! I have seen people show up on the wrong day.

  • alex

    I fly Ryanair regularly (around once a week on average) I have had no
    problems with their charges. They are all clearly posted and easy to
    understand.

    The purpose of the charges is to modify your behaviour as a passenger.
    On that basis it is easy to justify the £60 boarding pass reissue fee.
    If you are the only passenger on a given day who turns up to the airport
    without your pass, the member of staff who serves you is only there to
    serve you! your £60 will not cover the cost of their salary and
    associated costs, it is not just about the paper and ink cost.

    The same is true for the baggage costs, Ryanair do not want you to take
    any checked bags with you, they have to pay for staff to deal with them.
    They want you to take hand luggage which fits into the little cage (and
    thus the overhead lockers on the plane) so that they can turn their
    planes around quickly. I believe they aim to spend only 25 – 45 minutes
    on the ground between flights and most of their flights so that each plane can make 4 return flights every day.

    I have some sympathy for a non European audience who may not be used to
    the business model but the charges are certainly not hidden. (For those
    who like to joke about them charging for the air that you breath, you
    don’t have to look to far to find the charge for oxygen!(medicinal))

    Finally your survey is valueless and insults your readers. Without at
    least a none of the above option, your results will be meaningless.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CarverFarrow Carver Clark Farrow

    If the airports are sister airports it can happen. Like in the Bay area, we have Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco. I routinely fly out of San Jose and San Francisco depending on convenience and cost. I can see possibly getting confused. Both airports are less than 25 minutes from my house.

  • Amy Jackson

    I agree about with you about the out of control fees, and that little
    extra fee for some service and hassle-free travel but how many airlines
    actually do this? Even if you do get to travel with the more expensive
    option, some of these airlines still do these “hidden” charges and the
    service isn’t that top notch either.

  • flutiefan

    honestly, passengers have de-magnitized cards all day, every day. i don’t know what they’re doing with those suckers, but they sure as heck won’t swipe!
    and i get SO MANY that only have 1 card… so if it doesn’t work, they are out of luck (because of course they didn’t bring their confirmation number or know their FF#).
    add to that the tons of people who have their names spelled wrong — either by their travel bookers or by themselves, mistyping…. or they put “Steve” on their reservation, and their credit card says “Stephen”. to a computer, that is 2 separate names.

    it gets really annoying when they walk up to the counter and have no clue of their own flight information– times, cities, etc.

    as others have said before, the traveling public has demanded lower prices, which was achieved by the airlines automating many of the processes, including adding self-check-in. then the public gets made at me when they don’t bring the information required to use self-check-in, and they have to wait for me to finish helping the 4 other people who DID do everything correctly. i can’t win!

  • http://www.facebook.com/CarverFarrow Carver Clark Farrow

    Sounds like you have some very infrequent fliers as customers. I have no idea what your passengers are doing to their cards. The only card I’ve ever had demagnitize was an ATM card from a bank that used such cheap cards that they didn’t even have your name on it.

    As far as automation goes, it all depends. For me, automation rocks for simple, routine tasks. I rather use a live person for complex tasks. Kiosks are great for checking in. They are infinitely faster than waiting in line for a human and some airlines have more kiosks than live people. I prefer ATMs over tellers and I prefer self checkout at the grocery store.

    I promise you, if I’m in your line, I won’t give you are hard time ;-)

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    People who assume there’s going to be a kiosk where they can print their boarding passes for free. Really? You couldn’t follow that logic?

  • Ann Lamoy

    You don’t have to comb through the website. I just booked a fake flight and at the bottom it gives me a total price and this: (and since checked baggage fees are not included or other optional charges you can bet I would click the “click here for detail link”) Optional charges such as admin fee of £6/€6 per person/per sector and checked baggage fees are not included.
    Click here for detail

  • Michael__K

    Who said Mr. Volferganger bought his ticket online?

    Did you “click here for details?” And did you look at their table of fees? The “Boarding Card Re-issue fee” is listed as “n/a” if you book your ticket on ryanair.com. It is listed as 60GBP only if you book your ticket by phone or at the airport..

  • http://www.facebook.com/CarverFarrow Carver Clark Farrow

    I can’t wrap my head around paying a bank to withdraw my own money at its terminal. I would have to change banks. Plain and simple. When I was in school, my bank charged you to call and get your balance via its electronic phone system. Changed banks then as well.