Is the era of excessive airline fees really over?

By | February 10th, 2011

Maybe you heard about the students who “rioted” on a recent Ryanair flight because of the airline’s confiscatory luggage fees.

And maybe you heard the emphatic declarations from the blogosphere that this was the final straw, that enough was enough, and that airlines had finally gone too far with fees.

With the third anniversary of American Airlines’ pivotal first-checked-bag fee just a few weeks away — a surcharge that had a domino effect, paving the way for a fee bonanza that’s returned the industry to profitability, it’s worth asking: Are airlines about to pull back on fees?

The answer lies in the question. Because these surcharges have brought in billions of dollars in extra revenue, literally billions, it’s unlikely airlines will say, “The line has been drawn. We can’t become like Ryanair. Our passengers will riot!”

But for a few hopeful days, I thought I could write such a post. The backlash against Ryanair was pretty severe. A doom-and-gloom prognosis from a prominent airline blogger, who predicted 2011 would be the Year of the Airline Fee, had already angered a few air travelers. The student uprising only fueled the fire.

Then Delta Air Lines announced it would add roomier seats to certain flights, which was a tacit acknowledgment that some of its flights didn’t have enough legroom. There was a report about it sending its agents back to charm school in an effort to improve the customer service experience, too.

I thought: Maybe I can cite these as examples of one airline understanding that customers are mad as hell about the overall flight experience, if not about being nickel-and-dimed by fees.

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But then came word yesterday that US Airways had boosted some of its luggage fees, and as I sit here ponding the whole airline experience in 2011, I think to myself — nah, it can’t be that easy.

Take another look at Delta. There’s no evidence it’s backing off from building a business on fees. In just the first three quarters of 2010, it collected $733 million in baggage fees, the most of any domestic airline. Also, it isn’t giving the roomier seats away. You have to earn them with your status or pay extra for them.

Truth is, random anecdotes from Ryanair or Delta are no indication of where we’re headed, any more than the incendiary and uninformed predictions of any blogger. They’re just interesting anecdotes that make for compelling copy.

The fact that Delta added roomier seats the same week as the Ryanair mutiny? Coincidence. And its recurring training program isn’t new, either. I sat in on a similar class last year when I visited Delta in Atlanta.

US Airways’ new baggage fee is the only peg I can hang my hat on. It is slow, steady, a little stealthy. According to its website, oversized bags and those weighing more than 70 pounds now will cost $175, up from $100. The airline claims its new policy is now in line with other carriers.

No major American carrier is going to go where Ryanair has gone, charging for boarding passes and seat assignments and the ability to pay with a credit card. That’s the provenance of cut-rate, overtly customer-hostile air carriers who cater to passengers who are blind to everything but a low airfare.

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Instead, they’ll probably pile on the fees slowly, in a way we won’t notice.

Airline fees are unstoppable, sadly. The only thing that can make a difference is sensible legislation that requires airlines to reveal the total cost of an airline ticket.

Sorry, but the fees aren’t even slowing down — mutinies notwithstanding.

And no, this isn’t the Year of the Airline Fee.

It’s the Decade of the Airline Fee.

(Photo: Andres Rue da/Flickr Creative Commons)

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