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Here's the problem with Spirit Airlines' (www.spiritair.com) new $5 fee for printing a boarding pass, according to Dennis Tucker. Not everyone has access to a PC and printer when they're on the road.

"And if you're in a hotel somewhere and your flights change, how are you supposed to do that?" he asks.

Well, there's a silver lining for printer-less passengers. Until next year, they can use one of Spirit's airport kiosks to print their paperwork at no extra charge. After June 26, 2012, it'll cost $1.

But Tucker is essentially right -- if you don't have a PC, you'll have to pay.

New airline fees raise a lot of questions that tend to go unasked in the heat of the moment, and because stories like these typically get assigned to a summer intern. (I should know, I spent seven memorable summers interning at various news organizations.)

They include: Does it really cost $5 to print a boarding pass? Who benefits from the fee? And can it get any worse (or better, depending on your perspective)?

I've been tracking this particular fee since early June, when Spirit sent a poll to some of its passengers, asking if they wouldn't mind paying an extra $5 to print a boarding pass. Here's how Spirit asked its passengers to vote.

"In our efforts to lower fares, customers have asked us if they can save by checking in online. After consideration, we wanted to ask your preference. Is your preference:

  • I prefer only to use web check-in and lower my fare. This is similar to certain government processing initiatives that allow one channel for submission but retain efficiency.
  • I don't mind paying higher fares by checking in online while subsidizing others who check in at the airport.
  • I prefer to pay less for checking in online and let customers who check in at the airport pay for the convenience.
  • I would rather just raise the federal debt ceiling and have taxpayers subsidize me for being lazy and not checking in online."
Answer four makes you chuckle, doesn't it?

I asked Barry Biffle, Spirit's chief marketing officer, about the survey. He told me the questions were written by Spirit personnel and reviewed by senior management.

"This is a data gathering process that helps shape our opinion of our customers' views on this subject," he says. "We believe the questions are worded in a way that accurately and factually reflects the economics of our business."

Except for the last one, maybe, about raising the federal debt ceiling. Biffle says the airline included it "for fun."

And the whole thing, it turns out, was a formality. Spirit's executives had all but made up their minds about this fee, which, if you couldn't already tell from the questions, they were touting as a "discount."

Right.

While a select few travelers may be able to take advantage of this so-called "discount," many more will have to pay up. Does it cost Spirit $5 to print a boarding pass? Of course not. It's mostly profit.

On balance, it's clear that Spirit will benefit from the new fee more than its passengers. Just look at Ryanair, with its out-of-control fees and soaring profits, for an idea of how this might help Spirit's bottom line. And if you think this is the end, think again. They said that when Spirit began charging for carry-on bags last year. But the fee stuck.

In an effort to protect the profits it collects from fees, Spirit also recently challenged some of the Transportation Department's new consumer protection rules, which would require airlines to clearly disclose the surcharges. Curiously, it mentioned nothing about its own earnings, instead arguing that more disclosure would "hamper our nation's economic recovery."

Seriously. Here's the press release.

Maybe it isn't really a question of whether this latest fee is ridiculous. Maybe Spirit's business model -- and others like it -- is ridiculous.

Christopher Elliott is the author of the upcoming book "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org.