What if they had to give it all back?
Imagine if someone forced airlines, hotels and car rental companies to return every penny they took from you under questionable circumstances. The checked-bag fee, often poorly disclosed. The resort fee billed to your room, whether you used the “free” wireless and unlimited local phone calls or not. The license recovery fees that pay for your rental car’s plates — as if that were optional.
These extras, which most travelers call junk fees, aren’t just expensive annoyances. Vast sectors of the travel industry have made them a cornerstone of their business operations, with airlines leading the way down this ethically troublesome path.
It’s a practice the industry delicately calls “unbundling,” or removing often essential components of a product from the base price to make it look deceptively cheaper.
What if someone — a court or the government — required the travel industry to disgorge itself of all those ill-gotten gains, returning the money they sometimes improperly collected from you?
Travelers say they would love it, but parts of the travel industry might grind to a halt. Yes, that’s how dependent they’ve become on these often dishonest fees.
Becca Tabbutt says one airline broadsided her family with an additional $20-a-person fee for confirmed seats recently when they were flying from Philadelphia to Orlando. Many airlines charge for “premium” coach seats toward the front of the cabin or for exit-row seats, which offer additional leg room. In order to sit next to her kids, ages 4 and 1, Tabbutt, a stay-at-home mom from Parkesburg, Pa., forked over the extra money.
“But I inwardly seethed,” she adds.
When her family boarded the plane, she discovered it wasn’t full, and they could have easily sat together without paying extra.
“We felt even more duped,” she says. “We were led to believe that we had to pay to guarantee seats together.”
Tabbutt’s husband asked for an $80 refund, to no avail.
Industry apologists claim these fees are good because they’re optional, they lower the cost of travel for everyone else, and they ensure the industry’s profitability. That’s nonsense. Tell Tabbutt that sitting next to her toddler was “optional.” Only the savviest customers pay less, because they’ve figured out the system. Others unwillingly shell out more than they’ve budgeted, which directly translates into healthy profits.
Industry cheerleaders are right about only one thing: If it weren’t for these surcharges, many companies would simply not exist. Remove the $27.1 billion that the airline industry raked in last year from all the extras it sold us, for example, and you’d drain away its profits. No one really knows how dependent other parts of the travel business have grown on fees, since they’re not subject to the same reporting requirements.
What if someone like Tabbutt found a really good lawyer and sued her airline? To find out, I asked Tali Segal, another air traveler who has had to pay extra to sit next to her kids on a plane. She’s also a lawyer, and says proving fees are unethical wouldn’t be easy.