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When will enough be enough?

Airlines' rising fees confuse and anger their passengers  Aug 12, 2008

Rising airline fees reached new milestones last week with a charge for pillows and blankets and record charges for frequent-flier award tickets.
JetBlue began charging $7 for a new pillow-and-blanket set that passengers can keep.

US Airways established processing fees for frequent-flier tickets that will cost fliers booking online $30 for a domestic flight and $40 for nearly all international destinations. Bookings by phone cost fliers $55 for a domestic itinerary, $80 for Hawaii flights and $90 for many international flights. A change in a Hawaii, trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific frequent-flier ticket costs $250.

Airline fees are growing in number, rapidly increasing, and they anger or confuse many fliers. Airlines say the fees are necessary because they have been hit by a huge increase in the price of jet fuel.

"I think this a la carte method of squeezing travelers is basically bait-and-switch," says frequent-flier Jeff Kahne, a San Antonio consultant. "They bait us with a base fare and then start packing on the fees."

Airlines are "trying to offset costs," says David Castelveter, vice president of the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group. Jet fuel will cost airlines $61.2 billion this year, compared with $20 billion last year, he says.

Higher fee revenue will help pay those expenses. US Airways said last week that it expects $400 million to $500 million annually from its a la carte pricing strategy, which includes charging for a first checked bag, non-alcoholic beverages and processing frequent-flier-award tickets.

Fees charged to passengers vary by airline, and the differences can be big, according to a USA TODAY survey of 15 airlines' common charges for products and services available to coach passengers on domestic flights. Charges for 19 products and services were surveyed.

The survey found that:

• Only two airlines —— Southwest and Spirit —— have no extra charge for booking a flight on the phone. Cheaper ticket prices, however, may often be available online.

• More than half the airlines charge extra for a preferred seat, such as those with extra legroom, near the front of the cabin or on an aisle.

• Most airlines do not charge a fee to book a free frequent-flier ticket online, but nearly all charge for booking on the phone.

• Most airlines do not charge for a first checked bag, but only Southwest does not charge for a second one.

• An increasing number of airlines are charging for non-alcoholic beverages and snacks, and some meals are being sold for $10 or more.

Airlines' fees, Kahne says, sometimes equal the airfare, "making the hop to Hoboken twice what we were told."

The growing number of fees are sometimes hard to understand and not clearly disclosed to passengers, says Kate Hanni, executive director of Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, a consumer-rights advocate. "Confusion and anger is everywhere," she says.

The ATA's Castelveter disagrees that fliers are confused. "The airlines have been very clear in publicly communicating their rates and charges," he says. "In addition, the introduction of service fees has been the subject of many media stories, which has increased even more customer awareness."

In May, the Department of Transportation notified airlines to prominently display checked-baggage charges on their websites and in print advertisements. The agency says airlines with a fee for a first checked bag should mention it to consumers when they are booking a ticket by phone.

Regarding rising airline fees, the DOT said in a statement to USA TODAY that it doesn't "have the authority to determine what an airline can charge for its services." But it recognizes that "airlines and ticket agents are unbundling specific fees from their advertised airfares, and we will continue to monitor the industry to ensure these fees are clearly advertised and disclosed to passengers."

The DOT says it has no authority over optional charges such as those for food and beverages.

JetBlue says its optional charge for a pillow and blanket is a good deal because fliers get a carry-on bag for the items and a $5 coupon from a national retailer. The pillows and blankets are of higher quality and more sanitary than those formerly provided at no charge, says spokeswoman Alison Eshelman.

Atlanta-based frequent-flier Martin Israelsen, co-founder of travel-booking website, says he wouldn't mind "paying a couple of bucks extra" for a pillow, but he shouldn't be charged for a blanket on early-morning flights when it's cold in the passenger cabin.

US Airways' processing fees for frequent-flier tickets are "intended to help offset some of our rising expenses," says spokeswoman Valerie Wunder. "On average, it costs US Airways $700 per round trip to carry a passenger."

Many fliers, though, are unsympathetic.

Lori Strumpf, a consultant in Washington, D.C., who flies up to seven times weekly, says a ticket's price should include bags, food and any seat on a plane. "I am a consultant who provides advice," she says. "If I now said my day rate just paid for my infrastructure and my client had to pay extra for my advice, that would be ludicrous."

Marc Belsher, a health care consultant in Newberg, Ore., says he flies about every two weeks and finds no fees acceptable. "Give me the price of the ticket, let me make an informed decision and don't anger me by nickel-and-diming me on every bloody charge," he says.

From booking to on-board snacking, rising airline fees add up

These charts shows fees that U.S. airlines commonly charge coach passengers on domestic flights. Fees may be different than shown, depending on an individual traveler's circumstances. For instance, ticket-change fees can vary depending on whether a ticket is changed online, through an airline's telephone-reservation system or through a travel agent. Preferred-seat charges may be higher on some routes or some types of planes, or may vary for different kinds of seats. Many airlines reduce or waive certain fees for very frequent fliers or for passengers who pay full coach fares. The information in these charts was up to date as of Friday, August 8. Help USA TODAY keep it current. Email updates and suggestions about this airline fees guide to USA TODAY reporter Gary Stoller at


Airline Book ticket by phone Preferred seat Ticket change fee3

AirTran $15 $6-$20 $75

Alaska $15 NA $75-$100

American $20 NA $150

Continental $15 NA $150

Delta $25 NA $100

Frontier $25 NA $150

Hawaiian $10 or $201 NA $150 or $200

JetBlue $15 $10-$30 $100

Midwest $25 $25-$502 $100

Northwest $20 $5-$35 1504

Southwest 0 $15-$20 0

Spirit 0 Up to several hundred dollars $80-$90

United $25 $14-$149 $150

US Airways $25 $5-$25 $150

Virgin America $10 $50-$100 $75

1 — Begins in September; 2 — On Boeing 717s that begin flying this fall; $65 on McDonnell Douglas MD-80s that will cease flying Sept. 8; 3 — Ticket bought from a travel agent may have different fee; 4 — Some routes may have smaller fee


Airline Book free frequent-flier ticket on phone1 Book free frequent-flier ticket on-line1 Change free frequent-flier ticket Fee for buying frequent-flier miles/credits

AirTran 0 0 $75 $39/credit

Alaska $15 0 $100 $27.50/1,000 miles; $275/10,000 miles

American $20 $5 $150 $27.50/1,000 miles; $250/10,000 miles

Continental $25 0 $150 $32/1,000 miles; $320/10,000 miles

Delta $25 0 $100 $55/2,000 miles; $275/10,000 miles

Frontier $25 0 $35 $28/1,000 miles; $250/10,000 miles

Hawaiian $10-$20 0 $30 -$150 $32.25/$1,000 miles; $322.50/10,000 miles

JetBlue $15 0 $100 $5/point

Midwest $25 0 $50 $29.38/1,000 miles; $293.75/10,000 miles

Northwest $25 $25 $50 $28/1,000 miles; $280/10,000 miles

Southwest 0 0 0 Not for sale

Spirit Can't book on phone 0 $80-$90 Not for sale

United $25 0 $150 $67.25/1,000 miles; $357.50/10,000 miles

US Airways $55 ($80 Hawaii) $30 $100 ($250 (Hawaii) $50/1,000 miles; $275/10,000 miles

Virgin America $10 0 $75 Not for sale until 2009

1 — A fee may apply or could be higher if booking is made close to departure

Airline Check bag at curbside First checked bag Second checked bag Thirrd checked bag Annual fee for airport club lounge membership2

AirTran 0 0 $10/$20 $50 No lounges

Alaska No curb service 0 $25 $100 $375 new member; $275 renewal

American 0 $15 $25 $100 $400 new member; $450 renewal

Continental 0 0 $25 $100 $450 new member; $400 renewal

Delta $3 0 $50 $125 $450 new member; $400 renewal

Frontier 0 0 $25 $50 No lounges

Hawaiian No curb service 0-$151 $17-$25 $25-$100 $150

JetBlue $2 0 $20 $75 No lounges

Midwest 0 0 $20 $100 $250

Northwest $2 at 19 airports; no fee at others $15 $25 $100 $450 new member; $400 renewal

Southwest 0 0 0 $25 No lounges

Spirit No curb service $15-$25 $25 $100 No lounges

United $2 $15 $25 $125 $500

US Airways $15 $15 $25 $100 $390

Virgin America No curb service 0 $25 $25 $40 for access to one lounge

1 — Begins in September; 2 — Lower fee may apply for very frequent fliers

Airline Headset Non-alcoholic beverage Alcoholic beverage Snack Meal Unaccompanied minor age 5-7 Pet aboard flight
AirTran 0 0 $6 0 No meals $39 $69
Alaska $5-$10 0 $5 0-$5 $5 $75 $100
American $2 0 $6 $2-$4 $6 $100 $100
Continental $1 0 $5 0 0 $75 $125
Delta $3 0 $6 0-$3 $4-$10 $100 $150
Frontier 0 $2-$3 $6 $3 $6-$7 $50 No pets allowed
Hawaiian $5 0 $6 0-$5 0 $35-$75 $35-$175
JetBlue $1 0-$3 $5 01 No meals $75 $75
Midwest No headsets 0 $5 0 $6-$11 $50 $100
Northwest $3 0 $5 $3-$7 $10 $75 $80
Southwest No headsets 0 $4 0 No meals 0 No pets allowed
Spirit No headsets $2-$3 $5-$7 $2-$4 No meals $75 $85
United 0 0 $6 No fee (testing $3 snack on some routes) $5-$7 $99 $1252
US Airways $5 $1-$2 $7 $5 $7 $100 $100
Virgin America 0 0 $5-$6 $2-$3 $7-$9 $75 $100
1— $15 fee begins Oct. 1 on mainland U.S.-Hawaii flights; 2— $100 until Aug. 18
Sources: Airlines, USA TODAY research by Gary Stoller

Airlines' rising fees confuse and anger their passengers

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