Passengers brace for another summer of airline fees

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Christopher Elliott

Photo courtesy Frontier Airlines.
Photo courtesy Frontier Airlines.

It isn’t shaping up to be a good summer for air travelers who are trying to stick to a budget. And let’s be honest: Who isn’t watching their bottom line?

A few weeks before the traditional start of the busy travel season, United Airlines quietly raised its change fees on most discount fares from $150 to $200, rendering many of its tickets all but unchangeable.

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and US Airways quickly followed.

Not to be outdone, Frontier Airlines announced that for tickets booked anywhere except on its Web site, it would raise its luggage charges and impose a fee of up to $100 for certain carry-on bags, the third U.S. carrier to do this. Most economy-class passengers will also have to pay $1.99 for coffee, tea, soda and juice.

You read correctly: That fee is for a carry-on bag, not a checked bag.

The moves provoked an immediate outcry from fee-weary passengers, who accused the now-profitable airline industry of making a money grab just as the vacation season begins. But a closer look at their frustrations shows that their options for fighting these new surcharges are limited.

“Airlines have crossed the line and will continue to cross the line, whether it be change fees, baggage fees or whatever other fees they can think up,” says Dale Mellor, a finance director from Steamboat Springs, Colo. “We are largely powerless.”

But just how powerless?

The Transportation Department, which regulates domestic airlines, has “no authority” to regulate the fees airlines charge. “But we do require them to include all mandatory fees in the fares they advertise and to disclose all other fees and significant restrictions to consumers before they purchase a ticket,” said agency spokesman Bill Mosley.

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Can’t Congress do something? Not really.

A representative for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure told me that there were no current efforts or legislation to limit the new airline fees.

Since jet fuel prices temporarily spiked in 2008, America’s legacy airlines have turned to fees as a way to ensure their survival, and although airlines might be loath to admit it, ticket change fees have grown slower than expected. From 2007 to 2011, the last year for which complete numbers are available, baggage fees collected by the U.S. airline industry increased more than sevenfold, rising from $464 million to $3.3 billion a year. By comparison, ticket cancellation and change fees only roughly doubled, from $915 million to $2.3 billion a year.

Airlines need the money, says airline fee consultant Jay Sorensen. “Fees are a necessary component of every carrier’s revenue mix today,” he says.

But passengers don’t see it that way.

“Are they going to make it $300 next year?” asks Alan Gore, an IT consultant based in Sedona, Ariz. If they did, the change fee would be just $74 less than the average domestic airfare. At that level, airlines would simply have to declare that their tickets can’t be changed at all.

Although airlines say that a change fee represents a combination of the cost to change a ticket and the missed revenue opportunity from potentially having a seat fly empty, Gore and others don’t buy it. Gore says that the only reason airlines can charge such high fees is “because passengers are so passive about it.”

Resigned, too.

Kirby Ortiz de Montellano, a San Francisco-based frequent traveler, wishes that she could leave United after it raised its change fees. “I would happily take my business elsewhere,” she says. But she feels as if she has no choice: United serves the destinations she wants to visit, and she has elite status with the airline, which ensures a minimum level of comfort, particularly on long-haul flights. “I feel that I am locked into a bad marriage with United,” she says. “I would welcome any suggestions on how to get a divorce.”

Here’s one: Try asking another airline to match your elite status. Of course, that in no way guarantees that the other carrier won’t at some point adopt equally onerous fees.

Joel Shenker, a neurologist based in Columbia, Mo., says that the new fees reinforce his belief that it’s “morally wrong” to give his business to an industry “that treats me so shabbily.”

He adds, “If I’m traveling medium to short distances, I try to do something other than airplanes if possible, even if it takes longer, and even if it may cost more. If I have to go a long distance, I’ll fly if I must.”

Unfortunately, there’s no workaround for this type of travel problem.

If you need to fly, you may not have a choice. And if you have to change your plans, you’re stuck with a change fee that could obliterate some, if not all, of the value of your ticket. Neither the Department of Transportation nor the legislative branch will do anything to stop this. So if you want to avoid a higher change fee, a fee for your drinks or an outrageous charge for bringing a bag on board, the only certain way to avoid it this summer is to drive or take a train.

Even Sorensen, the fee analyst, says that the latest airline charges may go too far. “My advice to airlines has always been: ‘Keep fees reasonable and at a level that wouldn’t have your mother receive criticism about her son from her friends,’ ” he says. “I think United’s recent increases violate that guideline. When these fees are too high, the airline will experience compliance issues at the airports and call center, counter, and gate staff will suffer the consequences.”

Interestingly, the ticket counter may be your only real chance for relief. Airline agents are often empowered to reduce or waive fees, and a polite request – not a demand – may be your best hope for avoiding the summer of 2013’s new crop of airline fees.

In fact, it may be your only hope.

Have the new airline fees crossed a line?

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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 weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes 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 Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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