By now we all know that airlines have come to rely on extra fees to support their business model. With results like today's quarterly earnings -- with Southwest (LUV - Get Report) shares dropping 50,000 feet -- they have to. It started with the first $15 charge for checked bags what seems like a lifetime ago, but was actually just back in 2008 for major carriers. It has grown to encompass just about every aspect of flying.
And the dirty little secret is that it's our own fault.
When it comes to buying airplane tickets, passengers are notoriously price sensitive. We look for two things when it comes to booking a fare: flight duration and price, and that's pretty much it. This is one of the few markets for which that's true, and it's lead to some pretty bizarre results, like Spirit Airlines (SAVE - Get Report) simultaneously being one of America's most hated and most flown airlines.
We have taught the airlines well. If they want to survive, no less get ahead, the rule of the day is to cut the headline airfare no matter what it takes. We may grumble about the add-ons and extra fees they smack us with at the gate, but it hasn't changed our purchasing patterns yet. And if these ten hidden fees haven't chased us away, it's hard to imagine what will…
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If you thought it was bad when they started charging $50 for a second piece of checked luggage, you haven't seen anything yet. On airlines such as Spirit and Allegiant, it costs money to bring a bag onto the plane as well.
Now, I know what you're thinking. How are you supposed to take a trip without any luggage? To which the airline answers, overhead space is a valuable thing. You don't just give it away for nothing.
Instead you charge between $10 and $75 for it, or even more if the passenger didn't plan ahead of time.
It's almost hard to imagine, now, how much flying has changed from 20 years ago.
Some of that is definitely for the better. Security used to be little more than an X-ray machine and a dirty look, and while prices have gone down, safety records have gone up. On the other hand, there's the lamented practice of same-day standby.
Time was, if you arrived at the airport and there was an empty seat headed to your destination that same day, an airline would generally let you take it. It didn't cost the airline anything, and it opened up your seat later on.
These days, it's rare to have those seats open (most flights book at or beyond capacity), but when they do have room they charge you for it. What was once a courtesy extended at no cost will now run you between $75 and $150.
Like carry-on luggage, no one has ever thought that picking your seat was a "right." It just seemed to come with the process of buying an airplane ticket. You order a pizza and don't consider delivery a special perk, you buy a seat on an airplane and don't think twice about actually picking it out.
Well, they're on to us.
Seat selection fees are a small but growing part of the market. While most major airlines still restrict this to their premium, comfort, deluxe and other Hunger Games-like subdivisions within coach, the practice is spreading. This one is probably a few years away from universality.
So, a funny thing happened after checked bag fees; everyone started trying to cram all of their luggage in the overhead compartments. Funny how that works, right?
The upshot has been to make overhead space unbelievably valuable. It is one of the most highly prized commodities in the airplane itself, right up there with a working headset, an attractive neighbor and the window seat. Naturally, then, airlines began to commoditize this. (Others have gotten to work on monetizing the attractive neighbor.)
Enter priority boarding fees. It's not just about getting to your seat first. These days, with everyone trying to cram roll on bags and jumbo suitcases into the overhead bins, getting on the plane first is increasingly the difference between having a space and gate check. And people will pay for it.
Here's a true story. Once upon a time I was flying British Airways to London on a business trip with a few other lawyers. When the drink service came around, a friend of mine asked how much for some gin. The flight attendant laughed and looked at her colleague, then handed him a cocktail saying "this isn't American sweetheart. The drinks are free."
Oh for the heady days of 2008…
Now, I don't think anyone begrudges the airlines charging for alcohol. If nothing else, it's probably not wise to run an open bar at 30,000 feet. But let's be honest, when the airlines started dinging us for soda, chips and water, it started to feel just plain mean.
Frequent flyer programs are an excellent way to build loyalty, especially among heavy flyers. In an era where consumers, as we noted, are more price conscious than ever, these programs provide real incentive to take a more inconvenient or expensive ticket in the name of brand loyalty.
When you start adding fees for using those points, though, it gets increasingly inconvenient.
When you start adding fees for enrolling in the first place, it gets just plain ridiculous.
Sometimes buying a plane ticket is easy. You know where you're going and when you need to be there, so you just find a fare that works and click "buy." You can do it in between episodes of Friends from College, and while asking yourself why on Earth you decided to watch Friends from College.
Sometimes, though, it's more complicated. Additional passengers, flexible itineraries, multiple stops… there's a lot of reasons why you might want some help booking your flight. Happily the airlines can accommodate you, with personnel ready to take your call and help with what is a fairly significant purchase.
Unhappily, these days they charge for that privilege. Yes, the phone-booking fee: when they take money for the privilege of giving them money.
One of the most basic parts of buying a ticket is the step where you actually get a ticket. It's like when you order a pizza and expect that Step Two will involve a cardboard box filled with fat and happiness.
Carriers like Spirit, Allegiant and Ryanair charge you for the privilege of printing out a boarding pass. The alternative, if you can call it that, is to save them on precious, precious toner and print the pass at home or have it loaded up on your smart phone.
At least this fee helps save very few trees.
Welcome to the grim future, in which basic human warmth costs money.
Now, it's true that (so far) no airline has tried to monetize courtesy. The stewards and stewardesses will still smile at you for free, and the captain hasn't yet turned his PA into a system for heckling the passengers back in coach.
Airlines have, however, discovered that some people will pay for things like a pillow or a blanket. As a result, a few airlines have done the only thing you really can do in this situation: they began charging people for that.
Honestly, someone deserves a promotion for that kind of creativity. It takes real outside the box thinking to profit off a nap.
Have you ever wondered why so many airplanes have weird headphone jacks? Instead of the usual eighth-inch connector that everyone else uses, many armrests have a two prong plug to match the odd headphones that airlines hand out.
It's because in many cases those headphones aren't free, and the airlines would like to make sure you can't bring your own.
This has been the practice for a surprisingly long time. It's one way that airlines charge for in-flight entertainment, by making sure you can't actually hear anything unless you pony up first. Now, happily this is the one practice on this list that actually seems to be phasing out. These days everyone carries their own mobile entertainment centers in the form of smart phones and tablets, so if airlines want your attention on their screens they need to work for it.
Still… it's not gone altogether.