Commentary

Passengers Grumble, Lobbyists Lobby, Congress Mulls As Airline Fees Soar

The squeeze is on in the wild blue yonder. Even as the seating space on airplanes gets tighter, the airlines continue to raise costs for “amenities” such as checked luggage and battle to keep the fees they charge for once-free services such as making changes to a ticket.

American Airlines, the world’s largest carrier by passenger volume, said yesterday that, as of today, it is raising “fees from $25 to $30 for the first checked bag and from $35 to $40 for the second checked bag each way on flights to and from destinations within the U.S., North America and the Caribbean,” NPR’s David Schaper reports.

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“Delta announced similar fees increases earlier this week. United and JetBlue had already hiked checked baggage fees at the beginning of September. Southwest is the only major U.S. airline that does not charge for checked luggage. It said Thursday it would continue to allow passengers to check two bags for free,” Schaper continues.

The increasing costs for checking baggage exacerbate the problems caused by the smaller seating areas because passengers are tempted to lug more of their cargo into the cabin, the New York Timespointed out in an editorial yesterday.

“The typical economy seat is 17 inches wide, about an 8% decrease from the 18.5 inches of a decade or so ago, according to Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, a consumer advocacy group. The average American man is now 195.7 pounds, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, about an 8% increase over the past 20 years.”

Add in the increasing amount of comfort animals flying with increasingly distraught passengers and “it’s a zoo up there,” the Times concludes.  The editorial suggests that it’s unlikely that “today’s jets be evacuated in the 90 seconds mandated by the FAA” despite the agency’s insistence that it “has no evidence that current seat sizes are a factor in evacuation speed.”

Meanwhile, a funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration that’s now before Congress “includes language to curtail ‘unreasonable’ airline fees. The airlines, with $4.6 billion on the line, are lobbying hard against it,” Ashley Halsey III writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Those fees include the cost of changing a flight, which can be as high as $200, and the fees charged for accessing a stronger WiFi signal. 

The reauthorization bill faces a Sept. 30 deadline, but the outcome is still up in the air. Members of Congress fly more than the average American and “bridle at the myriad airline fees,” Halsey observes, but they are also mindful, shall we say, of the $12.4 million the industry has contributed to the campaigns of incumbents over the last 10 years. 

Even if they do pass the bill with curtailments on the nuisance fees intact, will it matter?

In what was called “an amazing win for consumers,” an FAA reauthorization bill passed by Congress in July 2016 directed “the transportation secretary to establish a policy to allow children under age 13 ‘to be seated in a seat adjacent to the seat of an accompanying family member over the age of 13 at no additional cost,’” Christopher Elliott reported for the Washington Post.

Little has changed since then, however.

“The reason: The Trump administration has declined to draft new rules detailing how airlines should apply the new law. That means that kids, in some cases, are still being separated from their parents while other families are paying more -- in advance -- to guarantee seats together,” writes the AP’s David Koenig in the Chicago Tribune.

“Buying a plane ticket has been stripped down to mean that you are paying for your mere right to get on the plane; anything else is extra,” observes Aditi Shrikant for Vox. “These extra fees are known as ‘ancillary revenue,’ and in 2017, the top 10 airlines brought in $29.7 billion of it, according to a report by IdeaWorks.”

Shrikant reports on a new source of ancillary revenue that some airlines have added in recent years: “seat bidding, allowing passengers in economy to enter an auction on upgrades to first class. The idea is that instead of seats going empty, airlines will make more than nothing on the available first-class space, and you will pay less than full price for an upgrade.”

She tests the bidding out herself on an app and finds she can snare a Premium seat on a Norwegian Air flight for much less at auction than she would if she bought it outright. 

“For those who have the funds and are averse to being crammed into economy, airlines have found a way to squeeze a few more dollars out of them. And with the possibility of standing flights and even tinier plane toilets on the horizon, that cost may seem more and more worth it,” she concludes.

What, you got a problem with standing?

5 comments about "Passengers Grumble, Lobbyists Lobby, Congress Mulls As Airline Fees Soar".
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  1. Ron Kurtz from American Affluence Research Center, September 21, 2018 at 9:49 a.m.

    Less leg room, smaller seats and bathrooms, charges for necessary features that were once included in the fare, etc. etc.

    When will people say enough is enough? The airlines have shown they are greedy enterprises with no soul, as they leverage their virtual monopoly, especially in the fortress hubs. Industry consolidation and informal coordination (i.e. collusion) have given the airlines freedom to do what they want to increase profits, regardless of how they discriminate against families with children, tall and large people, leisure travelers, etc.

    The DOT is obviously insensitive to what is happening, as they adhere to the administration’s agenda of fewer regulations everywhere. Congress will make a lot of noise, but do nothing meaningful, as they need the contributions of the airlines for re-election campaigns and the occasional free upgrade.

    In an attempt to be heard, the public should boycott the three legacy airlines (American, Delta, and United) on Nov. 22 and Dec. 25. Those are traditionally light traffic days (especially for high yield business travelers) and the other airlines should be able to accommodate most of the demand. Tell your friends and family to boycott the legacy airlines if they are tired of being victimized.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited replied, September 21, 2018 at 1:35 p.m.

    If you are going to boycott then you do it on the busiest day and all airlines. Pressure from their friends only help. Except for a few airlines, they are all part of a group like Star Alliance. However, there will not be a boycott. People still feel to entitled to be inconvenienced.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 21, 2018 at 1:44 p.m.

    Safe ? It is not just about width but depth. On my last flight, there were 2 very fat people in the middle and aisle seats who couldn't even put their trays down. If there were an emergency to get out and they can't move, do I, at 5 feet tall, just get up and walk over and on top of them since they couldn't move ? No doubt, other people have their stories as well for every point you make and more.

  4. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, September 22, 2018 at 8:08 a.m.

    Seems to be accurate about DOT's lack of interest in the flying public's dilemma, but airline stocks have seemingly soared. It appears to be a beautiful model; every time there's a spike in jet fuel, hike fees...and those fees don't go down, they are sticky.  What's amazing is the airline industry basically ignores, with apparent glee, the basics of improving the consumer or customer experience. Most other industry verticals can't.

  5. Ron Kurtz from American Affluence Research Center replied, September 22, 2018 at 10:49 a.m.

    James is right aout airline stocks doing well and that the airlines are less interested in the consumer experience than other verticals. The reason for both is that the legacy airlines have no real competiton. Management has it easy boosting profits in what is essentially an ologopoly. 

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