Ever-multiplying airline fees can catch consumers by surprise

Chicago TribuneJuly 22, 2013 

19950407 Cost of flying

FLANDERS — MCT

Buying a plane ticket today can be a dizzying consumer experience, sometimes with an overwhelming number of choices to make, each with its own price tag.

Checking a bag? With most airlines you’ll have to pay for that – and maybe for a carry-on.

Prefer an exit row? That will cost you.

Want to board early to snag overhead bin space for your roll-aboard? Be ready to pony up or use an airline credit card.

Need to change your flight? That might set you back a whopping $200 on a big carrier.

Want a Coke during beverage service? Frontier Airlines charges $1.99.

Each airline, large and small, has its own offerings and prices, creating a bewildering hodgepodge of tack-on fees.

Eventually, airline prices will simplify, industry experts say.

“The fees are so high these days that the actual price of the ticket loses its meaning,” said Max Levitte, co-founder of Cheapism.com, which recently charted airline fees among a dozen carriers. “You feel like you’re being nickel-and-dimed all the time. … Consumers don’t know what to expect unless they read all the fine print, which is a lot nowadays.”

What consumers call fees, airlines call unbundling – making a la carte choices from services formerly included in the fare.

Airline officials couch it in terms of giving fliers more choices. United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek last month likened it to customizing a pizza. “We used to serve you a pizza with all the toppings, and that’s all you got,” he said during a speech at a meeting of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. Unbundling allows passengers to pay for only the services they want, he said.

Jean Medina, spokeswoman for industry group Airlines for America, said fees have a consumer benefit. “The model of charging customers for services they value and are willing to pay for has enabled airlines to keep airfare affordable,” she said, adding that airfare increases since 2000 haven’t kept pace with the national inflation rate.

The fee craze began in 2008, as airlines scrambled to boost revenue to offset rocketing jet-fuel prices while not raising base fares.

Some fees are for new services not formerly included in fares – wireless Internet access and new economy seats with extra legroom, for example.

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