Fifty-eight billion dollars. That’s how much money airlines around the world are expected to make this year from their long list of new fees, according to estimates from the International Air Transport Association. Unfortunately, airlines are still struggling at home and abroad.
Airlines in the U.S. grossed nearly $4 billion from extra fees in just the first six months of 2009, and yet our domestic airline industry ended the year about $3 billion in the red and having to fire roughly 30,000 employees. The causes are obvious: a global recession, the threat of terrorist attacks and the increased security procedures employed to defend against them. Unfortunately, the solutions remain hidden, and many airlines continue to push out new fees to raise revenue.
Yet, as USA Today points out, the airlines that have done the best during the recession are the ones who have the lowest fees per customer. Southwest Airlines (Stock Quote: LUV), for example, charged an average of just $6 in extra fees per passenger (compared to other airlines that charge up to $24 per person) and yet this airline actually made a profit of $58 million last year. Perhaps the other major airlines should take note. They’d certainly win more fans.
Is there such a thing as a good airline fee?
As consumers, it’s easy to lash out against these airline fees, but it’s worth noting that while many are egregious, some may be justified. CNN points out that there is a right and a wrong way to approach fees. It’s more acceptable to add new services that cost money rather than to charge for old ones that used to be complimentary. They point to airlines that add items to their menus or offer wireless Internet access for a small fee. Of course, there are bound to be passengers who disagree with these fees, but in these cases it also comes down to the price. Wi-Fi is a valuable service that does not need to be free, but it’s debatable whether travelers should be forced to pay $10 or more for access.
Here are 11 of the most controversial airline fees that are either currently imposed on consumers or that have been proposed.
The Toilet Tax
Ryanair (Stock Quote: RYAAY), a budget European airline, recently made waves when it announced a plan to begin charging customers to use the bathroom. Ryanair reportedly asked Boeing to “redesign the cabin” and install coin-operated toilets in more than 150 planes. Ryanair also requested that Boeing cut the number of bathrooms on flights to make room for more seats (and more customers). However, this unusual scheme may have hit a temporary setback as Boeing recently stated it will not modify its planes in this way.
Few announcements have rocked the airline industry as much as Spirit Air’s recent decision to start charging for carry-on luggage. The airline is known for offering some bargain-priced flights, but now they are planning to charge as much as $45 for each piece of luggage that can’t fit underneath the seat in front of you. Not only has this arguably tarnished Spirit Air’s reputation, but it has even prompted the Senate to push for legislation that would ban this and other airlines from charging a carry-on fee.
What makes this fee so controversial? As one senator who helped introduce the legislation put it, “Unlike heavy suitcases, that belong down in an aircraft's hold, carry-on luggage is where people keep items essential to their health… that need to be kept close at hand.”
Pretty much the only group not upset by this announcement is the American Association of Nude Recreation, where travelers don’t have very much luggage (or clothing) on them to pay for.
Blankets and Pillows
What’s the price of a good night’s sleep? Apparently $8. Earlier this year, American Airlines announced that it will start charging passengers in coach for pillows and blankets on all flights that last longer than two hours. American wasn’t the first to come up with this idea though. JetBlue (Stock Quote: JBLU) began charging $7 for pillows and blankets back in 2008 and US Airways (Stock Quote: LCC) followed suit in 2009. In each of these cases, the airlines do offer coupons ranging from $5-$10 to Bed, Bath and Beyond to sweeten the deal. Still, it’s hard not to feel outraged when you have to pony up money for those cheap blankets and thin pillows.
Picking Your Seat
Last year, British Airways introduced an additional fee for any customer who wanted to reserve a seat in advance. Passengers are asked to pay anywhere from £10-60 (about $15-$90) each to choose a seat in advance, depending on how long the flight is and whether that seat is in coach or business class. One recent survey of passengers found this to be the most loathed airline fee.
Paying to Print Your Own Tickets
Yes, you read that right. Last year, Ryanair decided to cut its own costs by replacing all their airport check-in desks with an online version. So instead, they now charge passengers £5 ($7.50) to check in online and print out their own tickets. It might sound ludicrous for a company to charge you to do all the work, but then again, this is the same airline that wants to charge you for peeing. One Ryanair passenger found out a big downside to this plan besides the fee: not all home printers work perfectly.
Seats with More Legroom
Last month, Continental Airlines (Stock Quote: CAL) raised prices for exit row seats in coach that have more leg room. The prices vary, but according to USA Today, exit row seats cost an extra $59 on one flight from Newark to Houston. Other airlines also charge for roomier seats. US Airways now makes passengers pay $5-$30 more for window and aisle seats. Sure, the view is nice in window seats, and aisle seats have easy bathroom access, but neither really offers significantly more legroom and each have their downsides.
Water, Juice and Snacks
US Airways began charging passengers $2 for bottled water back in 2008 and now charges $6 for a “snack box” that includes nuts, cheeses and potato chips. To make things worse, one study found that when airlines do charge for food and drinks, the average cost is nearly 400% more than the supermarket price. Airlines like Delta (DAL), Alaska and United currently charge as much as $7 for snacks.
(Many airlines do also have a fee for alcoholic beverages, but I’ve been on enough flights with drunk passengers to know that this may actually be a bad thing.)
Credit Card Fees
From the beginning of 2008 to the middle of 2009, the fees associated with booking flights in Europe increased by a massive 600%. But the situation is even worse if you are a credit card user. For example, easyJet now charges about $18 extra to book with a credit card and Bmibaby, a low cost British airline, charges about $7 for using credit cards. In the U.S., Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air have both experimented with similar pay schemes.
This may just be a personal pet peeve of mine, but any airline that thinks it can charge $5 or more for headphones and not seem petty is out of its mind. Granted, this fee is a minimal nuisance if you are the kind of person who always travels with your own set.
First Checked Bag
Back in 2008, American Airlines shocked travelers by charging $15 for checking in the first piece of luggage. Since then, most major airlines gradually adopted this practice. American now charges $20, Delta charges $23 and both United and US Airways charge $25. A few airlines like JetBlue and Southwest continue to hold out, which has won them praise, although Southwest has another fee that may be even more controversial…
An Extra Seat for Your Fat
Southwest Airlines may have fewer fees than most but they took a lot of heat earlier in the year when they kicked popular director Kevin Smith off one of their flights for being too fat to fly. Southwest’s official policy is to force overweight customers (those “unable to lower both armrests”) to pay for an extra seat. The extra seat policy is also used when passengers want to bring a musical instrument on board, but that is much different (and less humiliating) than having to pay for a seat for your excess weight. Southwest is not the only airline to have this policy; United also has their own “fat fee.”
What Airline Fees Will Be Next?
The travel industry is still a long way from getting comfortably back on its feet, which makes you wonder what other fees airlines might resort to in the next few months in a desperate attempt to boost their revenues. Will they charge passengers more money to sit in a baby-free section, or charge pregnant women more money since they are really two people? They could just kill two birds with one stone and mandate that passengers strip and hand over their clothes for security reasons, and then sell passengers cheap robes to cover up with. Which of the above fees do you think is the worst, and what new fees would you most hate to see added?
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