First it was food, then blankets and pillows and now it seems that flyers have to pay extra for legroom. If the airlines have their way, soon passengers will be pouring their own coffees from beverage dispensers and being charged for the privilege. Perhaps they'll impose a levy on toilet usage and charge per minute.
Fee Schemes for Aisle Seats, Additional Legroom
You can always rely on the airline industry to introduce new and controversial ways to add extra dollars to your airfares -- and hopefully to their bottom lines. Not satisfied with charging for pretzels, last week Northwest Airlines introduced charging a premium of $15 for customers to sit in aisle seats with additional legroom or in emergency exit rows. Strangely, their new "Coach Choice" scheme is available only to late-booking passengers and sees the airline reserving a certain number of aisle and emergency exit seats, with up to 13 inches of additional legroom space. Perhaps this scheme is targeted towards late-booking business travelers who can afford it rather than those who book vacations well in advance, but either way, logic would suggest that you should be rewarded with a better seat the earlier you book, rather than the later. This $15 premium could be the cash cow the airline has been looking for. Although Northwest's plan was met with a fanfare of criticism and media scrutiny, in fact the concept is neither new nor proprietary. Several airlines, especially overseas, have being using this method of revenue raising for a while now.
Virgin Atlantic imposes a $75 fee for exit row seating. Both Virgin and British Airways have a premium economy class, which can cost considerably more than a discounted economy ticket, as does United Airlines with its Economy Plus offering premium seating with up to 5 more inches of legroom. The United "upgrades" can be purchased for individual flights (up to $99) or as part of a loyalty program that offers Economy Plus packages for $299 for you and a guest for an entire year, so if you are a frequent flier, this could well be a worthwhile investment.
These "premium" economy seats are located in the front of the economy class cabin and often include additional amenities (like better snacks and TV screens) on top of the extra legroom. Air Canada charges $12 for advanced seat assignment. In Australia, Virgin Blue allows passengers to pay an extra $22 a sector for seats in emergency rows. European discount carrier, Monarch Airlines charges $8 for a regular pre-reserved seat and $26 per seat per one way flight for a pre-reserved seat with extra legroom, so comparatively, that makes the Northwest charge seems rather conservative. What ever happened to turning up early at the airport and sweet-talking a check-in agent to get your bulkhead or emergency row seat?
Want to Talk to a Living Person? You'd Better Pay Up
The airlines also get you before you even board your flight -- from charging a $10 fee to book by telephone to the cost of dropping a bag with a sky cap on American, United, Northwest, US Airways and Alaska Airlines -- an additional $2 plus tip (although some would argue that this is a small price to pay to avoid long queues). Ireland based RyanAir has just introduced a charge for baggage ($4 if you register your baggage online or $8 if you just show up at the airport with it), which will certainly have a greater impact on leisure travelers and families. On the upside, the airline says it will reduce flight tickets accordingly for those without baggage and sees this "user pays" system as quite fair. Let's not forget that rather scandalous Southwest Airline rule of charging plus-size passengers for the cost of two seats (actually other US airlines like US Airways and Northwest can also impose extra cost on overweight passengers if they don't fit in available seating -- but the practice is rarely enforced). A bit of sanity has prevailed however with American Airlines dropping their charges for non-alcoholic beverages after a trial period (and lots of negative consumer feedback) that saw the airline imposing a dollar a drink charge.
How Can We Hide the Fees? Let us Count the Ways
A recent issue that has been picked up only cursorily by the press is that the airlines are lobbying the Department of Transportation (DOT) to change the way in which they are allowed to advertise airfares. As it currently stands, purchasing airfares either online, by telephone or over the counter is a confusing practice. You have to wade through the a series of different base fares, then you have to negotiate the add-on taxes and service charges -- and still be susceptible to additional fees depending on the airline or company you book through and the airport from where you're departing. Until now, airlines have been able to get away with advertising airfares that excluded taxes and fees -- but the new proposal requested by the airlines would allow them to fares even less transparent by not advertising additional airline-related costs like fuel surcharges. What this means to consumers, especially those that use airfare comparison websites to make purchasing decisions, is that it will become even harder to work out exactly how much your ticket will cost and which airline is offering the better deal. And with growing fuel surcharges, especially on certain international sectors, these hidden extra costs could come as a bit of shock when the final price is revealed.
This practice is already in place in certain European countries, especially among the low-cost carriers, like Ryanair, which supplements the miniscule airfares it advertises with extra taxes, fees, credit card and passenger service charges. They are even cheeky enough to impose a wheelchair levy (to cover the cost of the possibility that someone on your flight may require a wheelchair).
If it's not the airlines adding fees, it's the government. Another fee increase next year could see the current government-imposed $2.50 per passenger security fee doubled to $5. The proposal, if approved, would boost funding derived from passenger security fees to $3.3 billion. Let's hope that congress squashes this plan or it will certainly add more dollars to your annual travel expenses. If not, maybe they could put that extra revenue to good use by streamlining the current screening procedures at airports.
So it seems that the airlines are going to continue to give us less for more, and those of us who love to travel, or have to out of necessity, will have to consider whether or not we'll give in without an ounce of protest. Our suggestion? Contact airlines and your elected representatives to let them know where you stand.
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