Airlines announce new fees for seats, restroom use

Note: My colleague Todd Pitock has an important breaking news story on this April 1. He has filed the following guest blog entry.

U.S. airline carriers today announced that starting April 1 they will begin charging a “seating fee” of $50 per passenger in economy class and $75 in premium economy. The fee will not apply in business and first class.

Passengers will be permitted to sit at no charge during take off and landings, and during turbulence, in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration safety requirements. When the seatbelt sign is not illuminated, passengers will be permitted to stand in front of the seat they elected not to purchase. Special signs and bells will be installed to indicate when “standing room only” passengers must vacate their seats. Nylon loops will hang from overhead compartments for passengers to take hold of.

“One of the industry’s biggest historical flaws has been our excessive generosity,” an airline source explained. “Consequently too much has been taken for granted. Our job is getting people from point A to point B. That’s it. People ride buses every day and don’t just assume that they’ll get a seat.”

The industry expects financial turbulence throughout 2008 in the face of rising fuel costs and other operating expenses. The seating strategy is expected to generate revenue without raising ticket prices. It may also reduce refurbishing costs, slowing the rate of wear-and-tear on less-used seats.

Earlier this year, carriers including United Airlines and US Airways announced that starting in May they would institute a $25 fee for passengers checking a second piece of luggage. In March, JetBlue announced it would begin “upselling” extra legroom.

In addition to seating, airlines will begin charging for previously free amenities, including toilets. From October, passengers will need a credit or debit card to open restroom doors. The new program is called “Swipe ‘n Wipe.”

Inflight magazines will continue to be free, but air sickness bags will be provided on request at a cost of $1. “Most people use them to throw gum away,” the source said. “People who needed them for their intended purpose were often unable to get them open. The charge will reduce waste. It’s good for the environment. We’re trying to look for more ‘green’ opportunities.”

The carriers are further considering charges for people whose body-mass index, or BMI, exceeds 25, the cut-off for overweightness. Analysts estimate the cost of full-bodied passengers costs airliners 20% in additional fuel compared with a load of people who are not overweight. An estimated 70% of Americans’ BMI exceeds 25.

Passengers will be asked to stand on the scales currently used to weigh baggage.

“In our society, we expect people to ‘carry their own weight,’” the source said. “This policy would essentially bring into line what people pay with the resources they actually use.”

The proposed fatness levy would be scaled. Someone who is 25 pounds overweight would pay an additional 20%. Fares would double for morbidly obese people, or those whose flesh cannot be contained within the armrests of a standard economy seat.

“We believe the non-overweight public will embrace the move,” the airline source said. “We also support the troops,” the source added.

A spokesperson for the Association of Healthy Appetites, an advocacy group for the overweight, called the idea “preposterous and discriminatory” and said the AHA would resist the airlines’ effort to lard fares.

Reaction was warmer on Wall Street, where analysts said the new seating policy could net airliners as much as $5 billion.

The toilet pricing is expected to contribute heavily toward a more flush bottom line, especially on long-haul flights. To encourage customers to use Swipe ‘n Wipe, the airlines intend to increase the frequency of food and beverage service.

Passenger response to the seating policy has been mixed. Some accuse the airlines of profiting off of a captive audience.

Others say the fare’s fair, or even to their advantage. “The seats aren’t comfortable anyway,” said frequent flier Dave Smith of Philadelphia, Pa. “Every time I stand up to unfold my body a flight attendant shouts at me to sit down. Now I can save myself a few bucks and be left alone. To tell you the truth, I love the idea.”

Happy April 1. And many thanks to Todd for the almost true dispatch.

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