Are airlines lying about boarding pass fees?

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By Christopher Elliott

When Marius Vogelfanger got an email from Ryanair before a recent flight from Bergamo Airport, near Milan, Italy, he thought it was sending it to him as a courtesy.

“Don’t forget to check-in on line from 15 days up to 4 hours prior to your scheduled flight departure,” it said.

But the email failed to tell Vogelfanger, a construction professional who works in Washington, what would happen if he and his travel companion failed to check in online.

When they arrived at the airport, they were given some bad news by an airline representative: They’d have to print out their boarding passes, and it would cost them.

Controversial boarding pass charges

“We were told to go to the cashier and pay 120 euro for the printing of two boarding passes,” he says. “We paid this outrageous amount since we had no choice. Unfortunately, we had to be on that flight.”

Sixty euro ($72) to print out a boarding pass? What are they smoking at Ryanair?

Before I get to the answer, here’s the sad truth: The boarding pass fee isn’t new, although many passengers like Vogelfanger will experience it for the first time this summer. The discount airline quietly added the fee late last year. Spirit Air charges a more modest $5 to print a boarding pass and $1 to use its electronic kiosks at the airport.

What’s new is that this funny airline math is leading to windfall profits. For example, when Spirit Air reported its latest quarterly numbers, it noted that the average base ticket revenue per passenger flight segment slipped 1.1 percent to $81. But at the same time, the average non-ticket revenue jumped 18.6 percent to $51 per passenger flight segment.

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The controversies surrounding surprise charges

In other words, the average Spirit ticket costs $81, but the average passenger also pays $51 in fees, including, at times, the silly print-a-boarding-pass fee.

These so-called “ancillary” fees are big business for the airline industry. A recent survey found that worldwide, the airline industry collected $22.6 billion in ancillary revenues last year, up 66 percent from two years ago.

If you’re a laissez-faire free marketer, you’re probably saying to yourself: “Isn’t that great? The airline industry has finally figured out a way to make money?”

Not so fast. I’m a believer in the free market, too, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

And not telling Vogelfanger he’ll have to shell out another $72 to print out a boarding pass — that’s the wrong way. But when he complained to Ryanair, it said it would keep his money, thanks very much, even though he’d paid more for the passes than for the original ticket.

Beyond common sense

I’ll say it again. The boarding passes cost more than the ticket.

“The answer was that we didn’t follow their policy and therefore no refund is granted, nor any explanation or apology,” he says.

Granted, Ryanair discloses the boarding pass printout fees on its website, as does Spirit. But who has the time to surf the Internet, pre-flight? Ryanair and airlines like it, know that. They’re profiting from it.

Beyond that, though, something else has quietly slipped away from the discussion of airline fees: Whatever happened to common sense? (Related: Are fees for carry-on luggage just the beginning?)

Do you really expect us to believe that a sliver of paper and a little printer ink costs $72? Or even $5?

I can’t make that case, sorry. (Related: Are airline fees being fairly disclosed?)

The free market run amok

What we have here is the free market run amok, one boarding pass at a time. It’s a perversion of capitalism, not unlike the military being billed $500 for a screwdriver. It happens because an unscrupulous company thinks we aren’t paying attention, and in many instances, we aren’t. (Here’s how to get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket.)

Of course it doesn’t cost $72 to print a sheet of paper. It doesn’t take much common sense to know that. It’s remarkable that no regulatory agency — here or in Europe — has stepped forward to say, “That’s ridiculous. Enough, already.”

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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