Friday, October 16, 2009

Can Airlines Possibly Charge for Anything Else?

Piling on may draw a penalty on a football field, but apparently the airlines think they're immune when it comes to piling fees on hapless travelers. Hardly a week goes by without the announcement of new fees and extra charges. Although the airlines are careful to keep their fees optional, many travelers are wondering, "Will it ever end?" I'm afraid the answer is, "Don't hold your breath until it stops," at least in the shorter term. The longer term is anyone's guess.

The latest outrage to hit the travel headlines is from British Airways: fees for seat assignments more than 24 hours in advance of departure. British Airways isn't the only airline to assess such charges, but it's the only big line to charge for ordinary seats. Current charges for economy are about $16 for a flight within Europe and about $32 for a long-haul flight. Fees on many expensive business-class tickets are even higher—about $32 within Europe or a whopping $80 for long-haul. And those prices won't even get you into a coveted exit-row seat in economy, where you'll have to pay $80 to $120 for the extra legroom.

As usual, travelers on any first-class or any full-fare ticket are exempt, as are those at exalted frequent flyer levels. Also exempt are travelers with special needs. Interestingly, British Airways seems a bit embarrassed about these charges, at least to the extent that it doesn't post prices on its website.

The real surprise here is the fee on many business and premium economy tickets, fare levels that are typically immune to the nickel-and-dime (or maybe sixpence-and-shilling) charges so prevalent in ordinary economy. All I can guess is that British Airways' financial situation is dire enough—and the trade press seems to think it is—to warrant offending even its high-paying customers.

British Airways' main transatlantic competitors haven't matched, at least so far. But as I've often said about airlines, never underestimate the power of a bad idea.

To my knowledge, only three U.S.-based airlines charge for advance seat assignment anywhere in the economy cabin: AirTran charges $6 per trip for travelers on discount and sale fares, I suspect that's most of us; Allegiant charges $6 to $15, depending on location; and Spirit charges $7 to $20. US Airways charges for a few preferred seats in the front of its coach cabins. Elsewhere, Air Canada charges travelers on its lowest-fare Tango tickets $C15 for an advance seat assignment. And many low-fare and charter lines outside the United States charge for advance seat assignments—some for any seat, others just for an exit-row seat.

Of course, fees aren't just about seating. By now you're accustomed to paying extra on most lines for meals, snacks, and even soft drinks in addition to paying for checked baggage, pillows and blankets, phone reservations, paper tickets, and more. In fact, on many lines, you pay for just about anything the airline can separate as an option. For the most part, the new fees cover service elements that used to be included within the base fare. The main value-added extras are entertainment and in-flight Internet access, where you at least get something new for your money.

Can airlines charge us for anything else? The head of Ryanair was quoted last year about considering charging for the use of the onboard lavatory, but even the top Ryanair-watchers aren't sure whether he was serious.

To me, the end of piling on will come—if it ever comes—when the few airlines that buck the fee trends start to gain enough market traction to worry the competitors. Right now, the two main mavericks are Southwest, with is no-charge baggage checking, and Continental, which still offers meals in coach. Are these strategies working? I can't tell yet, but Southwest is sure pushing its no-charge baggage thing. Let's hope it works.
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