If it seems like your ticket comes with more ridiculous airline fees than ever, it’s not your imagination. The ability to reserve a seat, change your flight and even to carry a bag onto the plane have been quietly stripped away — and then added back as “gotcha” fees.
Yes, you can still get those “perks.” But you either have to pay extra for them or participate in the airline’s habit-forming frequent flier program. The most recent indignity, a dustup over minimum seat size, has many travelers asking: Should there be other minimum standards, when it comes to flying?
“It doesn’t seem right,” says Kathleen Crowley, a frequent flyer and fashion designer who lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She recently booked a “basic” economy class seat on American Airlines, and it came without the ability to reserve a seat. That didn’t sit well with her.
“When I buy a plane ticket, am I not buying a seat on that plane?” she asks.
How these ridiculous airline fees came to be
Before I detail the ridiculous airline fees, let’s spend a moment talking about how you lost these perks. Airlines didn’t “unbundle” these amenities from your airfares, which would have suddenly lowered your cost of flying. Instead, they kept the ticket prices the same and just started charging more for these essentials. In other words, they raised prices.
So to those of you who claim the stripped-down “basic” fares give budget-conscious air travelers more choices, I have just one thing to say: Please stop parroting airline propaganda. Removing these perks and hiding them was just a money grab that made the airline industry wildly profitable – and you a little poorer.
Check out half the cases on my consumer advocacy site if you don’t believe me.
Here’s a brief list of the amenities you’ve lost:
Want a blanket or pillow to help you sleep on your overnight transatlantic flight? If you’re in coach, you’ll probably have to pay for it.
Maybe it seems frivolous, but items like pillows, blankets, drinks and food are important to passengers, especially on longer flights. Airlines used to include them as part of your fare because it was the right thing to do. They still do in business and first-class. But now they make passengers in the main cabin pay extra.
What’s more, the items for sale are disposable. “Many budget airlines will sell you blankets and pillows, allowing you to keep them after the flight is over,” Matt Woodley, a frequent hotel guest who writes a blog about international moving. “This is terribly impractical because the blankets are generally of lower quality and nobody wants to lug around a large blanket emblazoned with JetBlue on it.”
A carry-on bag
Some airlines now charge you each way for a carry-on bag.
“This is another attempt to upsell on what used to be considered normal,” says Jeffrey Tucker, a frequent air traveler who works for a nonprofit organization in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
Who travels without luggage? Actually, some travelers have started doing just that in response to the fees. They shouldn’t have to. The ability to check a bag – or to carry it on a plane, for that matter – should be included in the price of your ticket. Period.
A seat reservation
This is one of the stranger things the airlines have taken away. Until recently, you used to be able to make a seat reservation when you booked a flight. Now you have to pay for the privilege.
This one has hit families and people with special needs the hardest. If they don’t pay even more for a seat reservation, they might be separated on a flight. Congress tried – but failed – to right this wrong.
“A lot of travelers still think the ability to reserve a seat should be standard,” says Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir. “No matter the fare.”
A printout of your boarding pass
Flying Spirit and want a printout of your boarding pass? That’ll be $10, please.
I’m not joking. Some low-fare airlines, such as Spirit, charge up to $10 to print your boarding pass. Ryanair asks passengers to fork over an eye-popping $25 for a hard copy of their boarding passes. That’s absurd. Can we at least agree that boarding passes should be included in the price of your ticket?
In the old days, you used to make a change to your ticket for a nominal fee (or even free). Today, ticket change fees can exceed the value of your ticket. Some “basic” fares can’t even be changed.
How to fix the problem of ridiculous airline fees
How about instead of misrepresenting their fares, we get all of the airlines on the same page. Ask them, or require them, to quote ticket prices that include all of these essential items: a boarding pass printout, a seat reservation, a checked bag, basic amenities and the ability to change a ticket for a reasonable price. If you want to uncheck a box that removes these extras, fine. The cost of your flight will fall. But don’t quote a “bare” fare and leave passengers with the impression they’re getting a deal.
Fact is, on some low fare carriers, passengers are spending almost as much on fees as they are on their ticket. That’s deceptive – and wrong. Every airline ticket should come with a basic level of service and amenities. Airlines know what those “perks” are because they’re already giving them to their top customers. So do you.
How much money are airlines making by selling ‘perks’?
Airlines have made a fortune by removing amenities and then selling them back to you. In fact, some airlines wouldn’t be profitable without revenue from so-called “ancillary” revenue.
Luggage fees: According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, domestic airlines collected a record $4.9 billion in 2018, up from $4.6 billion the previous year. A decade earlier, they only collected $464 million.
Ticket change fees: Airlines collected $1.4 billion in ticket change fees in 2018, about the same as the previous year. A decade before, airlines charged just $915 million.
Other fees: Airlines don’t have to report income from other fees. But in 2018, the airline industry collected more than $90 billion – yes, that’s with a “b” – from all ancillary revenues, which includes the sale of its frequent flyer miles.