Let's assume, for a moment, that you can't stop 2008 from becoming the Year of the Fee.
Let's assume you'll cheerfully pay every fuel surcharge, resort fee, excess luggage fee and security fee they throw at you.
But here's a question no one else seems to be asking: What's in it for you?
Hardly a soul wondered about that after United Airlines imposed a controversial $25 fee on a second checked bag. Or when Southwest Airlines began charging $25 for a third checked bag. Or when the Transportation Security Administration requested a "temporary" 50-cent per-leg surcharge to the existing $2.50 passenger security fee.
You were outraged, yes. "Words cannot express my contempt," wrote Kathleen Much, an editor from Menlo Park, Calif., when she learned of United's move -- a move, by the way, other airlines say they are "studying" and are widely expected to follow.
But if these fees stick, are you entitled to anything? You certainly are.
Now That I'm Paying for This Bag, How About Tracking It?
Let's take a closer look at the rash of new luggage fees. United's chief revenue officer, John Tague, said his airline's surcharge would allow it to "offer competitive fares to everyone" while generating more than $100 million in revenue and cost savings each year. This makes little sense. Airline passengers have long regarded their ticket as a contract to transport both them and their luggage, an assumption the document appears to support. So by adding to the cost of their ticket price, United, Southwest and all others who follow their lead, are actually making fares less competitive. But the new fees also target the wrong passengers. Frequent-flying business travelers have always been the biggest moneymakers for airlines, yet they are exempt from the new rules. So guess who's getting socked with this luggage fee? The very families for which these airlines purportedly want to keep fares competitive.
What You Should Expect: If you're going to pay for your luggage, shouldn't United spend some of that $100 million to install an RFID-based luggage tracking system to ensure your luggage is returned to you when you arrive? The airline industry lost an average of seven bags per 1,000 passengers last year. If you're paying more than it costs to ship a parcel across the country to check your luggage, isn't it reasonable to expect an airline to track and find your bag when it's lost instead of sending it to the unclaimed baggage center to be sold after conducting a halfhearted search?
If I'm Paying More for Security, Do You Mind Scanning My Liquid's and Gels?
The Transportation Security Administration's new 50 cent per-leg surcharge, which would take effect in 2009 and expire in 2012, could raise $426 million next year and a total of $1.7 billion over four years. The money will pay for new baggage explosive detection systems. Anyone want to bet the fee will still be with us after 2012? The airline industry is not happy with this idea -- its lobbyists at the Air Transport Association have waged a long battle against higher security fees -- because they would make its uncompetitive airfares look even more uncompetitive. Isn't it odd that the airline industry complains about external fees then turns around and imposes their own? Who else thinks that's more than a little ironic?
What You Should Expect: The federal government had better use some of that $1.7 billion to figure out how to scan our liquids and gels. The ban has been taken to extremes, including confiscating holiday pies. I think most air travelers would settle for having the feds take a hard look at the no-fly list and removing innocent passengers, like 5-year-old Matthew Gardner.
What if Energy Prices Fall? Shouldn't I Get a Refund on My Fuel Surcharge?
Everywhere you look, there seems to be a fuel surcharge waiting to be discovered. Cruise lines imposed them on passengers late last year (in some cases even on fares that had already been paid for in full) and airlines have been trying to add them to their "competitive" fares for weeks. Never mind that fuel surcharges are a bad business practice, disingenuous, and probably illegal. Did I say "illegal"? Yes, I did, and the Florida attorney general thinks I might be right. Fuel surcharges appear to be here to stay.
What You Should Expect: Assuming Florida's top lawyer can't stop the cruise lines from charging a fee that they once promised to never impose and assuming airlines make their excessive fuel fees stick, we are well within our rights to ask for something in return. It's a simple request, really. When fuel prices drop, we want our money back. In cash -- not credit. A review of past fuel surcharges suggests travel companies pocket the money even when fuel prices fall.
When I Pay a Mandatory "Resort Fee," Shouldn't I Get All of Those Promised Amenities?
Let's just get one thing out of the way: Mandatory resort fees are evil. Totally evil. When a hotel quotes you a rate, it shouldn't be allowed to tack on another $10 or $20 a night for services you may or may not use. That's just wrong. But this isn't the place to discuss the wrongness of these surcharges. They're here and I'm not going to persuade the lodging industry to drop them in this story. My colleague Scott McMurren, who writes a terrific travel column for the Anchorage Daily News, pointed out that in some places, resort fees have spread faster than a bedbug infestation. "The Hawaii hotel industry, for example, now is in the habit of charging mandatory resort fees of between $15 and $25 per room per day," he says. "Apparently, there is no way around these bogus shake-downs. And what do you get? Nightly turndown service, free local calls and access to the wireless Internet system. Hah! I am going to throw up."
What You Should Expect: Exactly what you're paying for. And that's the trouble with resort fees -- they don't always deliver what they promise. How many times have you tried to log on to a wireless hotspot in your hotel room, only to get either a slow-as-molasses connection or none at all? How often have you shown up at the resort gym, only to find that your favorite exercise equipment is busted? How many times have you gone to the pool to discover that there aren't enough towels, or that the water is full of rambunctious guests? If a hotel doesn't give you what it's charging you for, shouldn't you be entitled to a refund?
Look, I'm not endorsing resort fees or fuel surcharges. I'm not in favor or more security fees and I think the new luggage costs are unconscionable.
Here's what I am saying: If we're going to pay more, shouldn't we expect more?
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at email@example.com.
(c) 2008 Christopher Elliott Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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