It’s time to kill airline nuisance fees

Margaret Waldman’s surprise airline “refund fee” is a mystery. Solving it could be a bad sign for all of us.

Waldman, a retired writer who lives in Oakland, Calif., decided to cancel a recent flight to Spain, which should have been no problem. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has a 24-hour rule that says most tickets have to be refunded if you notify the airline within a day. Fully refunded.

Instead, Iberia charged Waldman a $25 fee.

“Iberia’s customer service department told me this is standard company policy,” she says. “My understanding is this is against the law.”

Is it my imagination, or are the number of complaints about nuisance airline fees on the rise?

It’s hard to tell. The government doesn’t track complaint data on fees. But it does have a complaint category for “ticketing” and “customer service” — two areas where fee-grievances are likely to be filed. And the number of complaints in those categories jumped from 3,736 in 2013 to 3,966 last year.

A likely culprit: nuisance fees. This relatively new strain of surcharges, quietly imposed on unwitting passengers by profit-hungry airlines, are often hard to explain and even harder to justify. They can include extras like Waldman’s refund fee, mandatory-looking airline seat fees, or higher fees for items passengers already pay for, like luggage.

Waldman’s puzzle took a little time to solve. Turns out the flight for which she wanted a refund was within Europe. So the DOT’s 24-hour refund rule — which requires reservations to be held at the quoted fare without payment, or canceled without penalty, for at least 24 hours after a reservation is made — didn’t apply.

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Consuelo Arias, a spokesman for Iberia, said the airline allows passengers to hold a reservation for a day. After that, it imposes a refund fee on certain tickets. Arias said Iberia had done Waldman a favor by refunding her ticket. Technically, it was completely nonrefundable.

“Once the ticket has been issued, the normal fare conditions apply,” he says. “This ticket wasn’t refundable, nor could it be changed. We did refund it, but did apply the refund fee.”

But still, a $25 “refund” fee? Come on.

All of which brings us to Frontier Airlines. It’s been exploring the “frontiers” of fees lately, much to the displeasure of passengers like Cherylyn LeBon. She paid $868 for four tickets from Washington to Las Vegas on the Denver-based airline recently. LeBon, who is traveling with two young children, expected to pay more for her luggage, but when she finished her reservation, it also asked her to shell out extra money for a seat assignment.

“When did they start charging for seats?” she asks. “That’s news to me.”

Technically, Frontier charges extra if you want to reserve a seat, according to the airline. “We do not require a seat reservation fee,” explains airline spokesman Todd Lehmacher. “However, it is the best way to ensure you are seated with those you are traveling with.”

But that’s not the message LeBon received. When she refused to pay between $4 to $16 per seat, a large pop-up appeared on her computer screen. “ARE YOU SURE?” it asked. “Ensure you aren’t separated from your pals or family. Prices may be higher at check-in.” To her, that looked like Frontier might charge her even more for a seat when she got to the airport, at best — and at worst that it would ensure she would be separated from her family if she didn’t act now. So she paid $16 for each seat.

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“It’s bizarre,” she says.

Frontier is pushing the limits when it comes to other fees, too. Last week, [May 1] it raised luggage fees, even though fuel prices had fallen. Fees for bags paid for through Frontier’s call centers at the airport or through another website, jumped by $5 a bag. And the “gate check” fee for a bag carried to the gate that exceeds the permitted dimensions for carry-on luggage rose from $50 to $60, according to the airline.

Lately, airlines haven’t even bothered to explain themselves when they add these surcharges. They do it because they can and because people are compelled to pay.

“They’re ridiculous,” says Amrita Holden, a managing partner for an energy company in Anaheim, Calif. Charges for seat reservations and luggage should be included in the fare, says Holden, who is shocked by the lack of disclosure of the fees and the increasingly defiant attitude with which airlines apply them.

Of course, not everyone is down on the new fees. After all, when fees rise, fares sometimes fall. If you learn to play the system, you can save money. That’s Beth Ellen Nash’s position, after first being stung by Spirit Airlines’ nuisance fees.

“Now that I’ve been flying them a few times, I appreciate that I only pay for the services I want,” says Nash, an education consultant from Madison, Wis. “I do not pay $3 for a can of soda. Once I learned their system, I appreciate their bare-fare approach to only pay for what is actually important to me.”

True, there are a few passengers who have figured out a way around the airline nuisance fees. But the only clear winners in this game are the airlines. Most passengers will pay higher prices to fly than they expected — and that’s wrong.

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How to not get stuck with an airline nuisance fee

Fly the airlines that don’t lie about prices.
Carriers like Southwest Airlines include the price of two bags in their fare. “Ultra” low-cost airlines like Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines charge extra for anything that isn’t nailed down, including a carry-on bag. And pay close attention to JetBlue, which has built a reputation as an airline that doesn’t nickel-and-dime passengers. It’s shifting to a fee-based fare system.

Read the fine print.
Airlines are required by law to disclose their fees. They don’t always do it in a customer-friendly way, so you have to pay close attention to your screen when you’re booking online, or ask questions when you’re buying a ticket by phone. That’s where the nuisance fees flourish. Make sure you cover the basics, like luggage fees, seat reservation fees and charges for items like boarding passes.

Tell the government.
The Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division can help if you encounter a nuisance fee that hasn’t been adequately disclosed. The agency may be able to help you secure a refund and even change the way the fee is disclosed in the future. Ultimately, the federal government needs to step in and stop the fee proliferation.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • AJPeabody

    I would have much less objection to fees if they were boldly and simply stated, rather than hidden behind obscure weblinks and tiny popups. If all possible fees were shown on a fee page as a menu with checkoffs for what I might want and the price right there to see, and if a fee not listed on that page were made illegal, both the free marketers and the regulation happy advocates might be satisfied.

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, fees are a nuisance. Everyone says they hate to pay them. But then everyone seems to choose the airlines that charge them because their fares are so much “cheaper” and then complain to everyone who will listen that they were unfairly charged.

    You can’t have it both ways. Either there will be fees, or the fares will go up. At least the fees give you the impression that you are only paying for what you need.

    Are some of these fees outrageous? Sure. But most of the more outrageous fees are there to discourage you from taking that specific action. Like change fees of $250 or more. Or the 3rd checked bag charge of $150. Airlines want you to stick to your original plans and they don’t like having too much luggage which cuts into their profitable cargo carrying.

  • Regina Litman

    For the past several days, before I’ve read an article here, I’ve scrolled to the bottom to see if it’s a repost. If the notation is there, I usually don’t bother to reread it, This one is obviously a repost from early May, but there isn’t a notation here. The one about rental car surprises also isn’t marked as a repost, but the story about the JFK Charger rental sounds familiar. Maybe it was the subject of a story by itself. Anyway, can you please resume marking the reposts? Thanks in advance.

  • Bill___A

    Although I am not a big fan of fees, I have no problem when they are for something you want to have. The “fee” I have trouble with is the hotel “resort fee” which by being compulsory and for things you don’t necessarily want, is not really a “fee” for something but just a way to raise the price.

    If we are going to have a battle about fees, let’s get rid of the resort fee first and then deal with the ones that are actually for something.

  • Carchar

    I avoid quite a few fees (and layovers) by being a frequent flyer member of an airline and flying out of its hub.

  • tomg63

    It sounds like she was lucky to get a refund at all. She should be happy she got off lightly.

  • BMG4ME

    Maybe Iberia is allowed to do this as a foreign airline?

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