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On most airlines, the frill is gone

SOURCEBOOK / TRANSPORTATION

It's not just about food anymore. Analysts predict more services will be a la carte.

January 22, 2006|James Gilden | Special to The Times

"I'D like a ticket from Los Angeles to New York," the traveler says.

"That will be $300," the reservation agent says. "Would you like extra legroom?"

"Sure."

"Very well, that will be $35. Would you like a meal on board?"

"Well, OK."

"Five dollars. Checking any bags?

"Yes, two."

"Seven dollars. Can I get you anything else?"

"No, I think that does it."

"Fine, then that will be $10 for talking to me, plus the other extras. Your final ticket price will be $357."

Find that scenario hard to imagine? Better try harder.

The airline industry in 2005 experienced a sea change. The legacy carriers, the Americans and Uniteds of the flying world, cut some amenities and started charging for others to compete with low-fare carriers.

"We're seeing a fascinating switch," said Jared Blank, editor of the Online Travel Review, an airline industry newsletter. "The so called low-fare carriers are offering lots of frills, and the so-called legacy carriers are offering fewer and fewer frills."

Flying a la carte. It is becoming an a la carte world on the legacy airlines. Want a pillow on Air Canada? That will be $2. A cup of soda? On American Eagle out of LAX, that will cost $1 (though that cost is billed as an "experiment" to be evaluated at the end of this month). Curbside baggage check? Two bucks per bag on American, Northwest and United.

Terry Trippler, an airline expert with online travel agency Cheapseats.com, predicts it's only a matter of time until the airlines start to charge not only for food, but also for advance seat assignments, checked baggage and even carry-on bags. Already, British low-fare carrier Flybe charges passengers about $3.50 per checked bag -- if you book it in advance. It will cost double if you check it without a luggage reservation.

Other industries have been moving in this direction for years. Full-serve gas costs you more. You pay for furniture, and then to have it delivered. The airlines have just been slow to catch on.

"A movie is $10, but you pay $7 for popcorn and Coke," Trippler says. "The airlines will take a lesson from the movie theaters. People will spend the buck."

Helping speed the transition is the ubiquitous airport kiosk. Already you can check in for your flight, check your bags, get a seat assignment. Trippler thinks that soon you'll also pay for on-board extras.

"You'll be able to get vouchers so the flight attendants don't even have to have cash," he said. Until then, be prepared to carry lots of $1 and $5 bills.

Meals. No change has affected air travelers as much as the disappearance of free, hot in-flight meals. The in-flight chicken surprise may have been the butt of many a joke, but it was nonetheless welcomed by the harried traveler who hadn't eaten before boarding a long flight.

Today it is safe to assume that if you are in coach on a domestic flight, food will be cold and come at a cost, if at all. Low-fare carriers never offered meals, and the legacy carriers are eliminating them to cut costs. American Airlines estimates it will save $30 million a year by eliminating free meal service.

Legroom. American Airlines made a lot of noise about removing seats to add legroom in coach in 2000. It was less boisterous when it started adding those seats back again in 2002. The transition back should be "close to complete now," says American spokesman Tim Wagner.

The good news is that some airlines will actually add some legroom in 2006. Again, it will come at a price.

United's Economy Plus seats offer up to 5 more inches of legroom than the rest of coach. But to reserve one, you must be a premier member of United's (or a partner's) frequent-flier program, or pay a fee to "upgrade," typically between $29 and $99, depending on a flight's length.

I was on a recent United flight to Boston when the gate attendant announced that upgrades to Economy Plus were available. Some of those seats are in exit aisles, which tall people know to request because of the legroom. In the good old days, a gate attendant might have moved a passenger to an exit row if seats were available; now it'll cost you.

United also has upgraded many of its small regional jets to Embraer 190s, which have full-sized-aircraft 31-inch seat pitch. (Pitch is a measure of legroom; the industry standard is 31 inches.) Placed two by two, all seats in economy are on either an aisle or a window. The planes are a big improvement over traditionally cramped regional jets.

JetBlue has also taken delivery of some new Embraer 190s and plans to use them as it adds service to new regional airports.

On JetBlue's larger A320 jets, anyone can reserve a seat with 34 inches of pitch in Rows 11 to 26. The rest have a pitch of 32 inches.

Bankruptcy. Finally, some good news on the financial front.

Northwest and Delta declared bankruptcy in September, and low-fare start-up Independence Air went belly up this month. But analysts don't think any more airlines will bite the dust in 2006. Standard & Poor's airline industry analyst Jim Corridore upgraded the firm's outlook from neutral to positive last month, saying "2006 could be sharply better if current trends continue."

United is poised to emerge from bankruptcy this spring. Low-cost carriers such as Southwest and JetBlue are expected to continue to show a profit.

So those trillions of frequent-flier miles that seemed in danger of disappearing appear to be safe. For now. That does not, however, make them any easier to redeem.

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