Should you pay an additional fee to board a flight early, even when you hold an assigned seat?
American Airlines is betting that enough passengers are fed up with jockeying for increasingly scanty space in the overhead bins to pony up to $38 round trip for the privilege of getting on early.
The new fees don't mean that you will get on first, but that you will be lumped into "Group 1 of General Boarding," which will include members of American's frequent flier program, as well as business travelers and others who purchased unrestricted fares.
American billed its new program, dubbed "Your Choice," as a way for travelers to ease headaches now commonplace to flying -- by paying additional fees to avoid even higher charges if they choose to stand by for an earlier flight, or decide to change their itinerary.
"We're excited to offer customers options to tailor each travel experience to their preferences," said Dan Garton, America's executive vice president of marketing. "Our customers appreciate value and convenience."
"Your Choice" allows passengers to pay an "introductory price" of $9 to $19 each way, depending on the length of the flight, for a package of services including early boarding, standing by for an earlier flight on the day of departure for no extra charge, and half off the airlines' $150 service charge to change an itinerary.
The services must be purchased for the entire trip and are not available at some airports. American plans to unbundle the perks even further later this summer and offer an early boarding option for an "introductory price" of $10 each way for purchase up to one hour before a flight's departure.
Several other carriers offer early boarding options for a fee, including Southwest Airlines, which doesn't have assigned seating and provides priority boarding for $10. United Airlines offers premier check in, which allows passengers to go to the front of the line at security and at the gate, starting at $19 each way.
American's program provided plenty of fodder for debate among travel experts, who wondered just which consumers would take advantage of the new services. The package doesn't make sense for families, for example, who book non-refundable tickets in advance and are unlikely to need most of the perks, said Anne Banas, executive editor of smartertravel.com.
"It all comes down to more revenue for the airline," Banas said. "They already unbundled what I consider to be the essential tier of services, it now seems like the next tier is, 'What extra perks can we charge people for?'"
The program is the latest salvo in a relentless march by airlines to unbundle fees from ticket prices for services which used to be free, including checked bags, seat selection, food and even pillows. Airlines are adding new fees so quickly that smartertravel.com has had a tough time keeping up with the changes in a chart on its website -- which morphed from one page to two this spring, Banas said.
Extra airline charges -- which became de riguer a few years ago as oil prices rose and the economy soured -- have been a gold mine for ailing carriers, which earned $7.8 billion from ancillary fees alone last year, according to federal government statistics.
American's announcement brought an immediate reaction from travelers tired of paying money for services they say they don't particularly want.
"I would pay to get off a plane early," wrote one traveler in response to a USAToday story on the program. "I'm so tired of waiting for people to get their over-sized carry bags out." Others called it "glorified fees for carry-ons."
And Banas might have to update her chart yet again -- American said it plans to offer more "Your Choice" services in the future.
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