Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Fees, Fi, Fo, Fum

Last week, I flew back from vacationing in Arizona, using some of the frequent flyer miles my husband had so assiduously collected over the years. (Thanks, hon!) The flight itself was free, but then, well, let the nickel and diming begin.

To begin with, there was some sort of tack-on fee for using frequent flyer miles.

Then I paid extra – I think it was $25 each way – for an aisle seat. Well worth it.

And I wasn’t on Southwest Airlines, so bags didn’t fly free. Mine cost $25 going, and $25 coming. But I had a big bag – no way that sucker could have been crammed into the overhead or underfoot. And not rolling on a suitcase stuffed to the gills let me make my entrance with my relatively modest pocketbook and tote and take my seat with an aura of moral superiority when compared with those fellow travelers rolling their carry on while lugging a handbag the size of a l steamer trunk, and hunched over from the weight of the backpack (stuffed with enough stuff to sustain the Shackleton Expedition) they consider a  “small personal item”.

But I digress…

I hadn’t read the small print, so until I was seated for the six-hour flight, I hadn’t realized that this was a food-free trip. Unless you were willing to pay $8.49 for a chicken wrap. Which of course I was.

The ka-ching continued on the flight home, when I forked over $21 for the privilege of flying through the security express lane, and – best of all – not having to take my shoes off. Since I was wearing a pair of intricately laced combat hiking boots, this was no small thing. But it got me thinking that maybe the next shoe-bomber would be similarly willing to spend $21 so that he didn’t have to put his sneakers in the grey plastic bucket and float them through the screening machine. Hmmmmm…..

Anyway, given my recent trip, I was interested in a recent article on the Wall Street Journal on the perpetually creeping airline fees.

Last spring, many airlines raised the fee for changing a flight to $200 from $150.

And American’s now selling something:

…called Choice Essential—for $68 round trip on domestic tickets—that spare the traveler from paying a reservation-change fee and provide a free checked bag and priority boarding. (Source: WSJOnline.)

Free checked bag and priority boarding for just $68? If they threw in the ability to avoid the shedding of the shoe, that would be a bargain compared to what I ended up paying on US Air when all was said and done.

Many airlines are now offering annual subscriptions that let folks check their bags for free. The fees are pretty hefty, but if you travel a lot with mega-bags, it might be worth it.

I also learned that many airlines charge extra for letting an unaccompanied minor board early. Other things that were once pretty much freebies:

  • Carry-on bag: $40 on Spirit
  • In-flight TV: Up to $7.99 on United
  • Extra legroom in coach: $8 to $159 on American
  • Early boarding: $10 on Delta
  • Wi-Fi access: $8 on Southwest
  • Blanket/pillow: Up to $5.99 on Jet Blue
  • Headset: $2 on Delta
  • Carry-on pet: $125 on United

I can understand that people wouldn’t want to fly their pets in a cage in the bowels of a plane. I can’t imagine anything worse to inflict on a pet. Truly, if I had to send a too-big-to-carry-on pet cross country, I think I’d hire someone to drive them. Still, carrying a pet on can be distracting.

In one memorable business flight I was on years ago, one of the toilets was occupied for the entire flight (Cleveland to Boston) by a woman trying to calm down her howling howler monkey.

Anyway, the fees are big business. For some reason, airlines don’t feel they can raise the fares themselves to reflect costs, so need to make it up elsewhere.

On one hand, why should people have to implicitly pay for stuff they don’t use – e.g., the plastic meals? And why shouldn’t those consuming extraneous services – carry-on pets – ante up for them, even when the actual cost to the airline is zero. Who doesn’t like free money?

But much of this seems like a purely psychological exercise to keep from raising actual ticket prices.

Psychological or not, we’re talking big bucks here. Ancillary revenue is now $8.49 per passenger – the exact cost of my chicken wrap. But I paid so much extra-extra, I brought the average for my recent flight up.

Anyway, extra fees rake in about $6 billion in revenue for U.S. airlines, and this is expected to double by 2020.

Still, “carriers that have fewer fees tend to be more popular in traveler surveys.”

Meanwhile, I’m keeping an eye on the add-ons for my upcoming trip to Ireland, on Aer Lingus. So far, I’ve sprung for some sort of seat upgrade. Can a charge for the stale, cold breakfast bun be far behind?

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