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What’s With All The Airline Fees?

Posted July 6th, 2012
by Staff Writers

Americans have begun to more or less accept the fact that previously standard services now come with a cost on most major airlines. Airlines began to get seriously fee-happy in 2008, when the cost of fuel began to eat away at their revenue. They weren’t exempt from the recession, and in an effort to keep afloat, fees were adopted for a wide variety of services. Anywhere that the airline could make a little extra cash, fees were enforced. While some fees such as frequent flyer mile redemption fees have been done away with over time, others have taken their place at growing rates. Even as fuel prices plummet to affordable prices, airlines continue to dole out fees, especially now that they know that people will continue to pay for them. But just how much are you willing to pay for basic service? At some point, you might weigh the benefits of alternate forms of travel against the growing inconvenience of flying with your favorite airline.

BeFrugal.com is a website that helps consumers make educated decisions about cost efficiency in their everyday lives. They offer a Fly Or Drive Calculator that allows you to compare the cost of driving to your destination with the cost of flying. While this may not be reasonable for a lot of travelers — businessmen don’t have time to trek across the country by car for their conferences — it can be a godsend for others looking to save some money from the pesky airline fees. The calculator isn’t 100% reliable, but it gives you an idea of the general comparison using gas prices based on the model car you drive, airfare and hotel prices within the area, and other charges associated with the trip at hand. When you add up all of the potential fees that come in tandem with your airline ticket, you may find that driving is more cost-efficient even with raised gas prices. If you’re unfamiliar with the slew of fees that come with modern air travel, read further. The findings might shock you.

 

Bag and Ticket-Change Fees

Gone are the days when you could have checked a bag or two for free. Most airlines charge a fee for even a single bag that has to be checked onto a plane, prompting travelers to pack lightly and maximize carry-on usage. AirfareWatchdog.com compiled a list of various airlines and their baggage fees on April 4, 2012. According to their site, American Airlines charges $25 for the first bag you check for a domestic flight, $35 for the second, and $150 for additional bags beyond two. Frontier charges $20 for the first and second bag, but $50 for an additional bag. Southwest is one of the few airlines that still allows their passengers to check two bags free of charge, charging between $50 and $110 for bags beyond that. The heavy incentive to carry on your luggage results in having to gate-check bags because there isn’t enough room on the plane for so many passengers and their belongings. Airport security lines are often painfully long because security officials have to rifle through so many bags that would have been checked if the act didn’t include additional fees.

Unfortunately, the luggage fees don’t end there. If you cram too much into your first checked bag because you don’t want to pay for an additional checked bag, you risk heading to the airport with an overweight or oversized bag. The fees you pay for overweight and oversized bags trump the fees paid for average weight luggage. There are many reasons for this — weight distribution on an airplane is important, of course, but airlines also don’t want their employees to give themselves a hernia while trying to lift a 90-pound bag onto a luggage carousel. United charges between $100 and $400 for an overweight bag, and $100 to $200 for oversized luggage. That fee is on top of the original fee you pay just to check the baggage in the first place.

If you need to change your ticket, expect to pay an exorbitant surcharge. Airlines bank big time off of customers that need to modify a flight. If you’re flying Delta and wish to change your flight, you’ll pay $150 for a domestic flight and upwards of $250 for an international flight. United also charges $150 for changing domestic flights. In fact, Southwest Airlines is one of the only domestic airlines that touts they will allow you to change your flight plans free of charge. According to the Transportation Department, the 19 major American airlines collected $1.1 billion in cancellation and change fees during the first half of 2010. That means that airlines are being strategic, gaining a hefty amount of revenue from their customers’ indecisive booking habits. Deborah Campbell, a woman who bought a ticket to a US Airways flight, was charged $111 for her original ticket and $150 in change fees. Thus, the cost of changing her ticket exceeded the price of the original faire. Airlines argue that steep ticket change fees are meant to cover the cost of a seat that might otherwise go empty if you change your flight.

 

Taking your Money for Nothing

Some of the fees accrued by airlines leave you with a slimmer wallet and nothing to show for it. There are fees that infuriate customers; fees charged for services that should be free in a perfect world. However, in order to keep up, airlines have to piece in as many hidden costs as they can muster in hopes that their customers will still support them. If you’re traveling to an airport that recently released plans to build a new international departure wing, for example, you may be taxed in order to fund the construction. When the airport requires maintenance, it pulls money from a variety of sources, including airport restaurants, car rental services around the airport, and the customers themselves. When Sacramento International Airport released plans to replace their 40-year-old terminal with a $1 billion, opulent new terminal, Southwest Airlines customers had to start paying an extra $6.05 along with their ticket prices to help with the cost, a price that is expected to go up to $19.67 within the next year. The terminal will feature a 56-foot-long aluminum red hare leaping into a suitcase, suspended from the ceiling of the hall. Some customers may balk at the idea of paying extra for what seems like an over-the-top piece of artwork, but it’s the price you pay for flying out of an airport undergoing construction.

You may also have to pay an additional fee for the plane’s fuel. One would think that something as basic as fuel would already be built into the price of a ticket, but apparently this isn’t the case. In fact, airlines use them to sort of trick customers into thinking they’re finding cheaper airfares by having a base ticket price separate from the cost of fuel. A USA Today writer plugged in a flight from San Francisco to Munich through Lufthansa and found that the trip was broken down into the base fare, fees and taxes, and the ever-elusive “fuel and security” surcharge. The base fare wound up being $1,560 with $580 of taxes and fees. As for the fuel surcharge? Lufthansa tacked on an extra $420. Conversely, that same flight through United amounted to $2,013 as a base fare with $127 of taxes and fees, without any category for a fuel surcharge. The flights cost the exact same, but Lufthansa hopes to attract customers with a lower base fare. Once you settle down to book the actual ticket, you realize the rates are just as high.

Regardless of whether you consider yourself internet literate, it is important that you know how to book and print a ticket online as opposed to over the phone. Airlines charge extra for customers who call an agent to book the ticket. They will then charge an additional fee if you request that they mail you a paper ticket. Delta charges $25 for booking your tickets over the phone with a representative. United airlines charges $50 for issuing paper tickets, $25 for tickets booked over the phone, and $30 for tickets booked at the airport kiosk. Not all airlines follow this philosophy, however. Frontier Airlines promises not to include any service charges for booking online, over the phone, or in person. They do charge $5 for a paper ticket, but it’s a far cry from United’s $50 paper ticket.

 

Amenity Fees

Airplanes are generally uncomfortable vessels for travel. Seating is a tight squeeze next to a stranger in a rigid chair, the cabin is often kept at temperatures that rival with a meat locker, and you have to invest in a pair of two-pronged headphones to watch any of the daytime television offered for your commute. However, comfort comes with a hefty price tag on most airlines. The best way to negate these fees is to bring your own amenities, because relying on the airline to supply them equates to shelling out some serious cash. For example, you might be that unlucky tall passenger that has to jackknife your knees against your chest to simply fit in the seating area. Many airlines have profited on the idea of selling their exit row seats for higher prices because it allows for about half a foot more legroom. Other airlines have installed new seating in specific parts of the plane with more dedicated leg space. Five inches of extra legroom may do the trick, but it will cost you — American Airlines charges between $8 and $108 per segment for the extra space depending on the flight and its duration, according to CNN Travel. Some flights also offer options like seating that reclines deeper (some even entirely flat), also for an increased price.

Many travelers can remember the days when airlines offered a bland, microwaved meal for lengthier domestic flights, free of charge. While the meal was in no way satisfying, passengers feasted readily on rubbery chicken and watered-down mashed potatoes. Now, Airlines are attempting to offer somewhat more appetizing food options in exchange for extra fees. Typically, these include snack boxes with artisan cheeses, nuts, and chocolate. Some flights offer things like yogurt parfaits. Forrester Research conducted a study in late 2009 showing that 19% of leisure travelers and 21% of business travelers bought food on a plane in the previous year, at the start of the food fee implementation. Delta airlines, which makes the most revenue from fees, charges between $2 and $8.50 for snacks and meals. Mixed drinks and cocktail offerings on planes generate even more revenue. American Airlines charges $7 for liquor and wine and $6 for beer.

In 2010, American Airlines began offering the “Boarding and Flexibility Package,” which allowed certain customers to board earlier with a fee. Depending on the market and flight, the “Boarding and Flexibility Package” costs members $9 to $19 for each segment of the trip and allows them to be among the first to board. Yet, even with the package, elite members and customers with disabilities still board before everyone else. Most other major airlines quickly introduced similar packages. United Airlines started a “Premier Line” service starting at $19, Southwest Airlines offers an “Early Bird Check-in” for $10, and Europe’s Ryanair, previously the go-to budget airline, charges around $5 for priority boarding. Some customers may find it odd that others are willing to pay a fee for better seating, yet still be confined to the economy section, but it looks as though people are willing to pay to get on the plane before anyone else. When those customers get on the plane an hour before it takes off, they might consider resting until the remainder of the aircraft boards, but the once-complimentary blankets and pillows now come with a price as well. American Airlines began charging $8 for a pillow and blanket on May 1, 2010 for domestic flights exceeding two hours. Customers on shorter flights are out of luck, with no blanket option at all.

 

Embracing the Fees

You might gripe over the extraneous fees, but they continue to work for airlines. Rather than boycott airlines for imposing hidden costs on their customers, an article by the New York Post has shown that passengers are more than willing to continue paying for small luxuries if it makes the traveling experience less cumbersome. In a recent survey conducted by AirfareWatchdog.com, airline customers admitted that they would gladly pay an extra fee to quicken the deplane process. Passengers are getting frustrated with missing their layovers, waiting out the tedious process of unloading customers row by row. One out of six passengers would rather tack on an extra fee in order to be among the first people off. Within the survey, 10% agreed that it was worth a $10 fee. Three percent would pay $20, while another 3% agreed that they would pay an undefined amount of money for the expedited unloading option. Even if only 10% of the passengers paid $10, airlines could accrue an extra $730 million.

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