Flying The Fee-filled Skies

Airlines get creative in charging their passengers for the rising cost of fuel

May 18, 2008|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,SUN REPORTER

What will they think of next?

Pay toilets? A seat belt fee?

Airlines, strapped by spiking fuel prices, a weakened economy and softening demand, are on the prowl for revenue, and coming up with an array of ways to extract it from passengers' pockets. And that's on top of the steady fare increases in the form of fuel surcharges that they've slapped on this year.

Checking the golf clubs in addition to a bag? Ca-ching. Like that little bit of extra leg room in the emergency exit row? Ca-ching. Taking your kitty along? Ca-ching. Those new charges and fees have popped up or increased as the economic vise has tightened.

Charging $5 here and $20 there for various amenities can add up to millions at a time when many airlines are hemorrhaging money, with the legacy carriers collectively losing over $1 billion in the first quarter.

Be prepared: We could see even more extra charges down the road, said Jay Ellenby, president of Safe Harbors Travel Group in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood. Charging for checking even one bag or for nonalcoholic beverages is no longer unimaginable, he said.

"What I'm hearing from customers is that they're willing to pay a few dollars more for an aisle seat and window seat; they're willing to pay for extra baggage," Ellenby said. "There is a price point that airlines realize hasn't been hit yet. They can get away with it."

Leisure travelers, particularly those traveling with lots of luggage and family members in tow, may feel particularly hard hit. You now pay more to travel with those fishing rods and skis.

The major legacy airlines recently enacted $25 charges to check a second bag to offset creeping fuel costs. Discounter AirTran Airways, which now charges $10 to check a second bag, seems like a relative bargain.

Southwest Airlines started the bag-checking fee frenzy in January, but the low-fare behemoth only starts charging with the third bag ($25).

"Most of these costs are really targeted at the leisure traveler," said Kevin Mitchell, founder of the Business Travel Coalition. "If you're going to fly somewhere with a couple of kids and you're going to get whacked a couple hundred bucks for extra baggage, that could affect your decision."

The good news is that low-cost Southwest and AirTran are the dominant carriers at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, and while they too are increasing fees, they are generally less than those of the legacy airlines.

Neither airline charges to check your bags curbside when you drive up to BWI. Delta Air Lines now charges the most - $3 per bag - at all airports where it offers the service.

The other major BWI carriers make you pay $2 per bag.

But AirTran will nail you for an extra $6 if you want to book seat assignments in advance of check-in - and $20 if you want the roomier exit row. AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver points out that booking a seat in advance is optional and unnecessary. US Airways also charges for those coveted aisle and window seats in the front of the plane.

While Southwest still doesn't assign seats, it did start charging $10 to $30 on top of its highest fares for the right to board the plane first. This "Business Select" program began in November. Purchasing a Business Select ticket also earns you an extra Rapid Rewards credit.

But the airline made its Rapid Rewards frequent-flier program more restrictive in November.

To avoid seat restrictions and experience fewer blackout dates, Southwest travelers now often have to use two Rapid Rewards Standard Awards (converted into a new Freedom Award), especially to lock in free fares to a popular destination. Previously, only one Standard Award was required for booking all free round trips.

Air-mailing the kids to grandma this summer? That'll cost you, too. Delta recently doubled its rate for unaccompanied minors to $100 one way. Continental raised its fee to $75 on nonstop flights and $100 for connecting ones, up from $50. Southwest will still fly unaccompanied children without an extra charge, but allows them only on nonstops.

And if grandma needs to book a flight herself? Don't let her do it over the phone. Reserve it for her online instead. Many airlines now charge you at least $15 to book the flight the old-fashioned way.

What about your dog or cat? Leave it at home if you can. United has just raised its carry-on fee for small pets to $100 one way (up from $85) to match fees already charged by Delta and US Airways. American and Northwest charge $80 for in-cabin pets. AirTran offers the best bargain - $65 per trip - so long as your pet carrier fits under the seat.

Southwest doesn't give you the option. Pets aren't allowed on-board, nor can they be checked as cargo. Handling animals on flights would slow down Southwest's quick turnaround times on the ground, the airline says.

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