US Airways charges a $150 fee to change a flight reservation. Above, US Airways… (Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg )
Remember when you liked to fly? Bill Knauer does.
Knauer, 76, of Laguna Niguel, spent his career in the food industry. He hopscotched all over the country peddling his wares.
Fun fact: Knauer says he was the young Swanson executive who introduced TV dinners to Los Angeles in 1959.
"I had to fly all the time back then," he told me. "It was very enjoyable."
What follows won't be a news flash to today's air travelers. But Knauer's recent experience with US Airways struck me as a fairly typical example of how a struggling industry has gone out of its way to treat its customers like litter-box leavings.
And passengers take the abuse because, well, what choice do we have?
Airlines are expected to pocket more than $36 billion in revenue from fees this year, according to the Amadeus Worldwide Estimate of Ancillary Revenue, an annual industry report. This is 11.3% more than last year.
Quiz: The year in business
For the last decade, Knauer and his four brothers, ranging in age from 73 to 87, have convened each year in Minnesota for a family get-together. As Knauer observes, none of them are getting any younger.
For this year's September reunion, he bought a nonrefundable, round-trip coach ticket for $443 with US Airways in March. Knauer knew such an early booking was risky, but he figured, as someone living on a fixed income, this would be the best way to hedge against rising fuel prices.
It looked like a prudent bet. The International Air Transport Assn. estimates that fuel now accounts for about a third of carriers' costs worldwide. This percentage is only expected to grow as increasing demand pushes oil prices higher amid a gradual economic recovery.
When I priced a ticket with US Airways the other day for the same trip Knauer booked, the cost was $562.
Unfortunately, Knauer bet wrong. The wife of his brother in Minnesota contracted Lyme's disease in August, and the annual reunion had to be called off. So Knauer got in touch with the airline to see about rescheduling.
Sure, it was possible, but US Airways said he'd have to pay a $150 "change fee."
"That seemed pretty excessive," Knauer said, noting that discount carrier Frontier Airlines had dinged one of his other brothers with a fee of just $75 to reschedule his flight.
Tough, US Airways replied. You want to change with us? That'll be $150.
And he could consider himself lucky. If he'd been booked on an international flight, the airline's change fee would have been a whopping $250.
Don't you love how airlines reserve the right to bump you from the plane if they overbook a flight, which they routinely do, yet insist that if you have to make a change, it's this major hassle requiring a hefty penalty?
Anyway, Knauer agreed to the change fee but then had another curveball thrown his way. For his $150, he'd purchased the right to book another flight at any time during the next year.
But US Airways, like most carriers, doesn't start the clock from the time of your scheduled flight or even from when you had to cancel. It starts it from the time you originally bought your ticket.
In Knauer's case, that meant he now had until March 2013 to use his $443 credit or kiss it goodbye.
As it happened, he didn't have to wait long until he needed to use the ticket. An old friend passed away in Minneapolis in October, and Knauer didn't think twice about flying back for the funeral.
So he went to US Airways' website and tried to book a seat. What do you know? The only seats offered for his $443 ticket were middle seats. But for an extra $29, Knauer was informed, he could lay claim to a window or aisle seat.
Then, of course, there was the $25 fee to check a bag each way. A second bag would have cost Knauer an additional $35 and, God forbid, if he'd wanted to bring a third bag, that would have been an extra $125.
Just to highlight how arbitrary all these fees really are, Knauer said that when he arrived at John Wayne Airport in Orange County to begin his trip, he asked the woman at the US Airways counter if he could change from his middle seat to something a little more comfortable.
"She switched me immediately to an aisle seat and didn't charge an extra fee," he said.
Andrew Christie, a spokesman for US Airways, said the fees-for-this-fees-for-that pricing model helps keep ticket costs down and prevents people from paying for things they might not want.
"Rather than subsidize these services through higher ticket prices for all customers, we have unbundled our services and charge fees to those customers who want them," he said.
"This kind of model has been the norm in the hotel industry for many years, such as charges for mini-fridge items, laundry services, baggage storage and late checkout," Christie said.
Fair points. But an airline's charging for a checked bag or a comfortable seat is closer to a hotel's charging for use of the toilet or shower. Those costs are built into your room rate, just as routine air-travel expenses should be built into base ticket prices.
A trip that originally cost Knauer $443 ended up running more than $600. And that's business as usual for the airline industry.
Oh, and US Airways is now seeking a merger with American Airlines, which would create the world's largest carrier by passenger traffic.
You just know things would only improve after that.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.