They said it couldn't be done. USA Today almost couldn't do it. It took a week for a reporter there to sit down and sort out all the assorted extra fees that that the airlines are charging.
The paper's table will be current for about a week, because more unexpected and unheralded fees are being pelted at us each week, but reading the resulting chart will either make you furious or resigned to your lowly condition.
The airlines aren't just making up new charges, like $7 for a pillow and $3 for a Coke. They're piling fees on top of fees that already exist. As the summer travel season starts, the airlines are now instituting penalties that will milk customers simply because we can't plan ahead to their satisfaction.
Starting July 9, U.S. Airways will raise its fee for checking a bag by $5 to $20 for one and $30 for the second one.
The only way to avoid that price hike -- and that's what it is -- is to check in online at least 24 hours before departure and pay for your bags via the internet. That way, U.S. Airways claims in a masterful bit of screw-the-customer spin, you'll get the cheaper "online price," which is what we call "the actual price" today.
It may be easy to check in at home before you go, but try getting to a computer in the midst of your vacation or if you're staying at grandma's. It turns booking a flight into a miserable round of gamesmanship.
USA Today's story reads like a litany. The big airlines will hit a family of four for an additional $1,000 if they're heading to Europe for three weeks and pack like it. JetBlue, like Southwest, may not charge you for baggage (yet), but it will charge you for certain seats and both make it more expensive to book by phone, even though you're trying to spend your money with them.
One guy saw a lady make a flight attendant turn down the air conditioning to avoid paying a $7 blanket fee on U.S. Airways. In this manner -- profitability by a thousand cuts -- United stands to rake in $275 million this year, and U.S. Airways expects up to $500 million. But at what future cost?
"That's just the way it is now," analysts might sigh. "Get used to it," they usually say, "because that's how they're making money now thanks to their lower fares." You know you've heard people say that. You might have said it yourself.
Quit apologizing for the airlines. If they can't afford to mark down the prices to make them attractive to consumers, there's something else wrong that I can't fix. I never argued that fees weren't here to stay. They are. I don't even argue that passengers shouldn't pay for what they use. I do think, though, that the whole fee culture has, in the space of a year, destroyed years of careful public relations plotting by the airlines.
For a long while, the airlines spent millions to convince us that their carrier had the friendliest attendants, the plushest seats, the most comfortable service. Now, their workers are trained to scrutinize every passenger for revenue opportunities. Now, cherished frequent fliers are charged $250 to change flights booked with miles.
Instead of running transportation companies that compete with each other with quality service, they are increasingly creating a hostile environment where customers feel like they've got to game the system any way they can. The fees make the airlines a customer-antagonistic industry, and in the long run, the money that they're raking in at the back end is going to cost them in longevity and brand loyalty.
If just one airline had started a la carte pricing -- if a single carrier had stood alone in charging us a flurry of fees -- then I don't think the American consumer would have put up with it. The market would have come down like a hammer on that lonely airline. But that's not what happened. All the airlines started to do it at once. People at many airports were left with no choice, and with no way for the market to favor the best product.
They're pretty much all a lousier product than they were a year ago, and because they acted as a flock, there's no way we can get around it. Someone smells a rat, though. There is a lawsuit pending that accuses AirTran and Delta of colluding to raise baggage fees at the same time so that neither airline would stand alone in the marketplace and they they could both benefit from fleecing their Atlanta customers.
The airport has turned into the zoo. Dodging the fees has turned into a fight for survival of the fittest. People are trying to sneak bags onto the flights without regard to other passengers. If customers are turning into rude animals at the check-in desk and self-serving monsters on the flights, the airlines have no one to blame but themselves. They started this game.
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