Warning: More airline fees are on the way

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By Christopher Elliott

When it comes to airline fees, what will they think of next? 

Passengers like Gregg Jaden think they’ve seen the future, and they don’t like it. On a recent flight from Bali to Bangkok, he tried to board with an overweight bag. 

He says Thai Airways demanded $500 for an extra 40 pounds of luggage.

“My flight only cost $150,” says Jaden, a photographer from Manhattan Beach, Calif. “I was forced to pay or miss my flight.”

He suspects airlines are trying something new. He says Thai Airways made it difficult to pay for overweight luggage in advance. Then, when he got to the airport, the carrier set a high luggage fee it knew passengers would have no choice but to pay. Call it dynamic luggage fees. 

I asked Thai Airways whether it was shifting to dynamic fees. In response, a representative sent me a link to the current baggage fees on its website without comment. I’ll take that as a no.

Airlines are busy thinking about how to earn more profit in 2023, and from the looks of it, they plan to do it the old-fashioned way: by charging fees. The extras range from luggage surcharges to creative change fees. 

The average airline fees rose to an all-time high of $128 per ticket last year, according to research by travel management company Navan (formerly TripActions). “They’re certainly the highest I’ve seen them,” Navan’s Chief Commercial Officer Danny Finkel said.

Airline fees continue on their upward trajectory, and most experts predict they will soar this year. (I have strategies on how to fight fees and other nuisance surcharges in my ultimate guide on booking airline tickets.)

But how?

Are dynamic airline fees coming in 2023?

There’s no evidence that airlines have shifted to dynamic fees — at least not yet. But there are signs that it might.

Jaden says the circumstances of his $500 trap seemed suspicious. He knew his bag was overweight and tried to pay for his luggage fees online. But the airline didn’t offer an option for overweight luggage. When he arrived at the airport, he says it appeared as if a ticket agent pulled a price out of thin air, believing he would have no choice but to pay. When an agent told Jaden how much it would cost, he also removed his name badge, making it harder for Jaden to file a formal complaint.

“The staff seemed familiar with this problem,” he says. “Nothing about it was professional.”

One thing is certain: Luggage fees will be big in 2023. Airlines collected a record $20.9 billion last year in baggage fees, according to a report from IdeaWorks, a company that tracks airline fees. They’re paying particular attention to carry-on fees. For example, Aer Lingus has a “saver” fare in Europe that includes a checked bag but excludes a large carry-on. And AirAsia will allow you to double the size of your 15-pound carry-on — for a price.

“It’s just a matter of time before we start seeing wider adoption of dynamic pricing on fees,” says John Breyault, a vice president at the National Consumers League, a nonprofit organization.

Beware of airline cancellation fees

Here’s a new kind of fee Ariana Fiorello-Omotosho saw this summer, and it could become big. When an airline cancels a flight, it owes you either a full refund or a flight of its choosing. Most passengers just want to get to their destination as planned, so they accept the new flight. 

But what if the airline can’t or won’t put them on the next flight? What if they tell them they can’t send them to their destination for a few more days, or weeks — unless they pay extra? 

There’s an opportunity to upsell passengers on an earlier flight. Fiorello-Omotosho, a travel coach from Medford, Mass., says she’s seen airlines punish passengers traveling on the cheapest tickets and who declined to buy a confirmed seat assignment. These travelers get the lowest priority when the airline has a cancellation. They often get stuck with lengthy waits at the airport just to board their rescheduled flight.

“This is a potential for any airline, and I believe it is going to be a growing concern,” she says.

Airlines profiting from their own cancellations? What’ll they think of next? (Related: Ridiculous or not? Airlines charge fees to use my credit card.)

A change for change fees

Here’s something else to look for as you start planning next year’s trips: Change fees may make a comeback. Wait, didn’t U.S. airlines agree to drop their change fees during the early days of the pandemic, as they were begging the federal government for a bailout? Yep, they did. But look at all the money they left on the table ($2.8 billion in 2019). Is there any way to keep their promise and bring back ticket change fees?

Of course there is. The easy way is to sell more tickets with change fees. Airlines exempted their cheapest fares from the “no change fees” promise. So all they really need to do is sell more of these cut-rate tickets and fewer regular economy class seats. 

The other strategy is to add a change fee but call it something else. I don’t dare speculate on how they would justify these new fees. I don’t want to give the airline industry any ideas. But let’s just say the airline industry misses its change fees, and it wants them back.

Then again, maybe the airline industry will do none of these things next year and take the easy runway. Sell more frequent flier miles to credit card companies and customers and then adjust their redemption levels to make them a little harder to use. It’s the airline industry’s trillion-dollar scam, and every time you make a purchase on your credit card or collect miles for a flight, you participate in it. But you probably already knew that.

How to escape airline fees in 2023

Don’t book airlines that charge high fees

Which airlines charge the most fees? IdeaWorks names them (they’re called ancillary revenue “champs”). They include Allegiant, EasyJet and Ryanair. But airlines like Frontier and Spirit also have well-earned reputations for adding fees. And JetBlue’s planned merger with Spirit — unless the Department of Justice gets its way — will also put it in the game. You can avoid the fees by flying without luggage and avoiding all perks, and you might even save some money. But sooner or later, the fees will find you.

Avoid the fee-prone fares

Don’t let the “basic economy” and “saver economy” discount fares fool you, says Daniel Green, co-founder of the travel insurance site Faye. The problem: They’re far more restrictive when it comes to luggage and ticket changes. “Airlines act like these are a discount,” he says, “In reality, if you purchase the saver fares plus one or two add-ons, you’ll end up paying more than you will for a regular economy ticket, which likely already includes those add-ons.”

Travel light

“The biggest mistake I see travelers make is not taking baggage weight limits seriously,” says Larry Snider, vice president of operations at Casago Vacation Rentals. “It’s worth the effort to pack a little smarter — and lighter — to save on these fees.” Fun fact: Airlines incentivize their ticket agents to collect as much revenue from passengers before they board. If they think your bag might be overweight, they’re gonna getcha.

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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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