More fees for holiday flying

Airlines charging customers more to book by phone, pick seats and fly during the holidays.

By TheStreet Staff Nov 2, 2009 12:25PM

By Jason Notte, TheStreet.com

 

Air travel © Christie & Cole/Corbis So you want to book a flight home for the holidays on United Air (UAUA) for you and your 52-pound bag. That'll be $189 to $299, please.

 

That money won't get you anywhere. It's just the sum of the fees you'll pay for calling in your reservation ($25), checking a bag at the airport ($20), stuffing said bag ($125 for bags 51-100 pounds), selecting a seat that's not in the back of the plane or between window and aisle seats ($14-$119) and traveling before or after Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day ($10). 

United is just one of the cash-strapped carriers giving U.S. domestic travelers capacity cuts and fee hikes as gifts this holiday season.

 

American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United and U.S. Airways Group reported multimillion dollar losses for the last quarter, leading to them to tack on a $10 surcharge to travel during the holidays as well as spring break, Easter and Memorial Day. Holiday fares are about 10% less than they were last year, but the folks at FareCompare.com say that seating capacity on flights to the 50 busiest cities the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is down 3.4%. Meanwhile, the ancillary costs for those who can get seats are hitting new altitudes.

 

Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com, and her colleagues update their chart of domestic airlines fees daily. The chart has grown substantially larger as more services come with a price tag.

 

"We built this chart in the early summer of 2008, when the airlines were introducing the first wave of checked bag fees," she says. "It's been over a year and not only are there more bag fees, but there's been an overall increase in fees across the board."

 

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, baggage fees brought in $1.2 billion for airlines during the first half of 2009, up from $301 million during the same period last year. In that time, bag fees have risen from $15 for the first bag to as much as $25 for one checked bag on U.S. Airways and Spirit Airlines.

 

Those fees have carried over to other baggage -- like pets and unaccompanied children. Taking a critter into the flight cabin costs at least $69 each way on AirTran and a lofty $250 on United. While AirTran charges $39 per flight leg to escort a lone child passenger, at least four airlines charge $100 for each portion of the route. These fees are to travelers what a condo fee is to a homeowner -- built-in, mandatory costs.

 

"One airline might have a cheaper flight, but when you add fees its gets worse," Banas says. "You really have to make this part of your comparison at this point."

 

These fees cover only the foreseeable circumstances. Let's say the Sue Grafton novel that Bob from Toledo picked up at the airport bookstore made his carry-on bag a bit too bulky. Toting an oversized bag (more than 62 inches) can cost from $39 on AirTran to $175 on Delta, Northwest or United.

 

Let's say that same novel made him want to stay a bit longer to finish it. Schedule changes can cost anywhere from $50 on Virgin America to $150 on six other carriers. For many holiday travelers, these and other fees are unavoidable.

 

"A lot of times, the airline you choose is based on what your arrival or departure city is," Banas says. "A big city like L.A. has five airports and you can flight on any airline, but if you're from a small town, you might only have a couple of choices, so what do you do?"

 

Those in podunk towns that lack fee-friendly airlines may consider earlier or later travel dates or traveling on the holiday itself, which tends to be cheaper and more comfortable. Those bearing gifts are advised to mail them or take advantage of free shipping offers from online retailers.

 

Those curious about the next wave of fees need only look beyond the borders. British Airways charges passengers up to $90 to book seats in advance. Last year, Air Canada charged fees for customer service by asking passengers to pay $25 to $35 each way for its "travel assistance" program.


Japan's All Nippon Airways, meanwhile, began asking passengers this month to use the bathroom before boarding to help conserve fuel, while an executive at Ireland's Ryanair mused publicly this year about charging passengers to use the toilet.

 

"I think it's unlikely, but ask me two years ago if they were going to start charging bag fees and I would have said it was unlikely," Banas says.

 

Check out an interactive graphic of airline fees.

 

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