Is it time for airlines to draw the line on fees?

Jag_cz/Shutterstock
Jag_cz/Shutterstock
Here’s a troubling event witnessed by Stavros Katsas on a recent Spirit Airlines flight — a scene rendered even more disturbing in light of last weekend’s deadly crash-landing of a passenger jet in San Francisco. He was seated near an emergency exit row and saw an elderly passenger take a seat in that row.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires emergency exit rows to have a minimum amount of space between them in order to facilitate a quick evacuation of an aircraft. For the government, it means a safer plane. For passengers, it translates into more legroom.

But to an airline like Spirit, it’s yet another opportunity to charge passengers extra. Which it does. Katsas estimates that the slow-moving woman paid at least $50 to sit in a “premium” seat.

There’s a catch, though: customers in an emergency exit row may need to assist during an evacuation, which can be a physically demanding job, according to the FAA. Although we don’t have many details about the Asiana Airlines flight from Seoul, South Korea, that burst into flames after crashing at San Francisco International Airport, we know that a quick evacuation was a key to saving lives.

“An announcement was made that if any of the passengers sitting at the emergency exit rows did not feel comfortable with the tasks requested, they should contact the crew to be re-seated,” says Katsas. “Of course, no one that had just paid $50 would accept that.”

Should they charge for it?

Are airlines compromising safety for profits? Katsas wonders about that. And I wonder if there are some things for which airlines should never charge.

When it comes to airline fees, Spirit doesn’t leave anything on the table. The airline squeezed more than 38 percent of its revenue from extras like fees for carry-on luggage, printing a boarding pass at the airport, and seat reservation fees, according to a recent report from consulting firm IdeaWorks. All told, Spirit’s customers spent an average of $49 per ticket in additional fees, the most of any domestic airline.

“So what if, in case of an emergency, a passenger was not able to perform the duties coming with the privilege of that extra leg room and there were fatalities as a result of a delayed evacuation?” wonders Katsas. “Who takes the blame for it? Is it the passenger’s fault who accepted the responsibility or is it the airline’s fault that passed on that responsibility to someone who could not perform it so they could earn some extra cash? Where do you draw the line?”

Ah, where do you draw the line? Great question.

When it compromises safety. Airlines should not charge extra when it places their passengers in any kind of danger. This doesn’t just apply to emergency exit rows, but also to the overall amount of space they offer in economy class. Remember, back in the 1970s 36 inches of seat “pitch” was considered reasonable. Today, you have to pay a fee to be seated in “premium” economy, which comes with about the same amount of legroom. Memo to airlines: You ever heard of DVT?

When it’s cruel and unusual. We have our Bill of Rights in the United States that prevents a patently unnecessary and barbaric form of punishment, and while I realize this will come across as somewhat hyperbolic, it doesn’t necessarily extend to air travelers. Today it’s possible to be deprived of food, drink and adequate oxygen on a flight. The remedy? Carry a credit card so you can pay for a basic meal. If you want to carry portable oxygen, better check with the airline first. There are numerous restrictions. My colleague Charlie Leocha recently pointed out that dogs have it better on planes than people.

When it’s a bait-and-switch. I’m sure I’ll get criticized for saying this, but here it goes: Marketing a product as all-inclusive and then “unbundling” it without clearly disclosing it is just wrong. Advance seat reservation fees are a good example, with everyone assuming that you can secure a pre-assigned seat on a legacy airline. When the average passenger buys a seat, they assume they can also get a reservation, and when it costs extra, they don’t think the airline is playing fair. They’re right. Instead of taking things away and giving them back for a fee, airlines ought to be looking for new ways to earn ancillary revenues, as I pointed out in a story a few years back.

I think there is a line when it comes to airline fees. I think everyone knows it, even a discount airline like Spirit. We may disagree about where the line is, but we all know it exists.

Personally, I think we’ve crossed it, but my opinion doesn’t matter. It’s up to government, which has already taken some steps to stop this nonsense, to regulators, legislators — and ultimately, to you — to say when we’ve reached that point.

Have airline fees crossed the line?

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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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