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Airline fees keep arriving, nonstop

American Airlines' latest nuisance fee is for passengers who want to sit in the first few rows of coach. The service you're buying with the basic fare is shrinking all the time.

August 31, 2010|Michael Hiltzik

Labor Day is nigh and we're heading into the last big surge of vacation travel of the summer.

Could there be a better moment for American Airlines to unveil its latest nuisance fee?

American's bright new idea is to charge coach passengers extra for a seat in the first few rows of the cabin, the idea being that these are desirable because their occupants can be assured of getting overhead bin space and get off the plane faster after landing.

I can certainly understand the desire to get off an American Airlines plane as quickly as possible. But this is just another example of the airlines' relentless campaign of "unbundling" — charging for service that used to be included in the ticket. Baggage fees, check-in fees (some airlines charge for checking in by phone, some for checking in online … what else is there — checking in by ESP? Soon there will be a fee for that).

American's new fee is part of its "Your Choice" package, a label apparently designed to communicate that if you, the customer, choose not to participate, then you, the customer, are a boob. Among the benefits of paying the fee for "Your Choice" is that you get a discount on other American nuisance fees, making it seem like a program that belongs in a circus funhouse.

That's just the beginning. American reported in July that pumping up "ancillary revenue," which is airline-speak for nuisance fees, is "a major focus" of its CEO, Gerald J. Arpey. He's no slouch at the effort — the company's fee income in the second quarter ended June 30 reached $625 million, a rise of 10% in a year.

But let's not single out American. Almost every airline today is guilty of unrestrained unbundling. Yet precious few of their fees have anything to do with steering passengers toward more efficient behavior, which would make some sense.

Checked-baggage fees induce more passengers to carry-on, which means slower boarding and disembarking, not to mention fuller overhead bins, less free legroom and more stress for cabin personnel. (The occasional surly flight attendant notwithstanding, for the most part these people are saints.)

That's why front-row seats are now so coveted that American can charge a fee for them.

If there's an operational rationale for steering baggage into the cabin rather than the cargo hold, it hasn't occurred to Spirit Airlines, which charges for checked bags and carry-ons, and more for the latter (up to $45, compared with a maximum of $25 for the first checked bag on a domestic flight).

The same goes for those exorbitant fees for changing your reservation — up to $150 per ticket, $250 on international flights. Perhaps there was a whole category of passengers who got their jollies by changing their tickets willy-nilly, jerking the airlines around. But based on my experience you generally change your ticket only because you have to, which means the airlines are merely squeezing extra profit from customers backed in a corner.

What the airlines can't wring from their customers, they're trying to get from workers. Some now charge $2 a bag for curbside check-in. This comes right out of the pockets of skycaps, whose clients often just subtract the fee from their tips. American dropped its curbside fee after it lost a lawsuit to a group of Boston skycaps. But other airlines still charge.

The most audacious minds in this dark corner of the travel business work for Ryanair, a low-cost Irish carrier that seems to charge a fee for almost everything, including making a reservation and checking in. One question on the airline's FAQ Web page is "Can I bring a parachute?" I shouldn't wonder — anyway, the answer is yes.

Not long ago, the airline floated the idea of charging for in-flight use of the bathrooms, evidently on the reasoning that what its passengers save in euros they ought to give back in personal dignity.

It's unclear whether this idea was just an executive thinking out loud or if it's seriously under consideration, but it put me in mind of the debate that took place in New York state in the 1970s, when I covered a legislative vote to outlaw pay toilets. The supporters' slogan, if I remember correctly, was "When nature calls, it shouldn't call collect." Something for the Ryanair people to think about.

Everybody understands what's driving the proliferation of fees. It's the airline industry's nearly permanent condition of economic prostration. American, for instance, has recorded only two profitable years in the last five. Bankruptcies and shotgun mergers riddle the entire industry, especially among the older, "legacy" carriers, saddled with fixed costs in equipment and labor that hobble their ability to compete.

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