"That's not a bug; it's a feature!" The software designer's plaint could easily fit the airlines, as well. Having run out of the low-hanging fruit of fee possibilities, they're turning to inventing new differences where none existed before and repackaging some of the old ones. At least one reader wondered how much more we can expect:
"What other fees and charges can airlines impose on us?"
The short answer is, "Airlines have already started to charge for most of the services that were formerly 'free' with your ticket: food, checked bags, and such. Now, they're turning toward gimmicks and packaging these gimmicks and fees into bundles." American and United are leading the way, with named programs featuring a laundry list of options; a few other lines offer a few more limited choices. Many of these extra-cost features are available to exalted frequent flyers and travelers on full-fare tickets, but ordinary mortals have to pay or do without.
American's "Your Choice" program presents several options, some new, some old, under the single roof:
Express Seats: Reserved seat assignments in the "first few" seat rows plus early boarding. Available domestically and on some international routes. Price varies by mileage, from $19 short-haul to $39 transcon; buy between 24 hours and 50 minutes before departure.
My take: The main advantages are (1) access to the overhead bins before they're full and (2) first off the plane on arrival. But those "special" seats are no better than the usual tight coach seats.
Confirmed Flight Change: Switch to a confirmed seat on an earlier or later flight on same-day, same-itinerary ticket. Subject to availability, for flights in US, Canada, and the Caribbean. Price $50; buy within 12 hours of desired new flight.
My take: It's potentially worth the cost, especially for business travelers who might finish their schedules early and don't want to hang around an airport for hours, or who are running late on their last day schedule.
Mileage Multiplier: Earn double or triple miles actually flown. Price: about 3 cents per mile; buy at check-in up to departure time.
My take: This is a lousy deal – miles that don't qualify for elite status aren't worth anything like 3 cents each.
Inflight Internet: Unlimited Wi-Fi for duration of flight. Available on all 767-200s and some MD80s and 737s. Price, from $4.95 for a short flight to $34.95 a month.
My take: This is the standard AirCell product and pricing and it's nothing new. Also, the same deal is available on many other lines at same prices. But it's attractive, especially if you get withdrawal symptoms anytime you're not online.
Admirals Club One-Day Pass: One day admission to AA airport lounges. Available at 40 big AA airports. Price $50, in advance or at the door.
My take: Again, nothing new, and available on most other big lines. The price seems stiff for what you get, but might be worthwhile in a long airport wait.
Five Star Service: Hand-holding for a "VIP travel experience." On departure: agent meeting at curbside, expedited check-in, expedited security, access to Admirals Club, escort to gate, pre-boarding, and assistance in case of delay or cancelation. On arrival: escort through baggage claim, baggage assistance, and – for international flights – escort through customs and immigration. Available at 10 U.S. and five overseas airports. Price, $125 for one person, $200 for couple, or $200 for one or two on international flights; arrange at least 24 hours in advance by phone or email.
My take: This is a new one on me. Although it seems aimed at people on an ego trip as well as a plane trip, I can see it primarily as the equivalent of "unaccompanied minor" treatment for seniors who are starting to slow down a bit or anyone with moderate mental impairment.
Boarding and Flexibility Package: Combines early boarding, no-charge standby for an earlier flight, and $75 off the usual fees for confirmed itinerary changes. Available within the 48 states. Pricing varies; buy after ticketing.
My take: It's hard to say without more pricing information, but the flight change discount could be attractive to anyone who needs more than the usual flexibility on arranging a return.
United calls its similar program "Travel Options by United." As with American, some of the features are new, some are old, but most are simply repackaging of the familiar.
Economy Plus One-Time Option: Seating in the Economy Plus cabin with three to five extra inches of legroom. Also, the Plus cabin automatically puts you in front of economy. Price varies with flight and distance, starts at $9 per trip; available at reservation or up to departure time.
My take: Unlike American's Express Seats, United's Economy Plus actually gets you a better seat. A significantly more attractive deal.
Premier Line: Priority check-in line, security line (at some airports), and early boarding. Price varies by flights, starting at $9. Less expensive than American's Express Seats; and when combined with Economy Plus, a better deal overall.
Award Accelerator: About the same as American's Mileage Multiplier, and an equally bad deal.
Choice Menu: Simply a re-packaging of United's standard paid meal program. Reasonable pricing if you fly during mealtimes.
Red Carpet Club One-Time Pass: Again, about the same deal as American's, except that for now, United is running a "discount" promotion at $35. Discount is available only for online purchase; otherwise, the price is $50.
Premier Baggage: Waives fees for up to two checked bags. Available yearly at $349. Obviously, a good deal only if you make a lot of trips with checked baggage.
Door-to-Door Baggage: A deal with FedEx to ship baggage, including sports equipment. Next-day delivery available within 48 states (except Sundays). Price (currently promoted as a "sale" price): $79 for flights of 1,000 miles or less; otherwise $99, arrange in advance online.
My take: United's current pricing seems to be better than prices from the several independent baggage shipping outfits.
United also lists travel insurance from Access America and foreign currency from eZforex in its Travel Options list. Access America is one of the top insurance providers, but its policies may not be the best fit for any given traveler. And buying foreign currency in advance is generally not a good idea these days.
United offers confirmed same-day flight reservations for $75, but doesn't bundle it with "options." Ditto standing by for an alternate flight for $50.
I didn't find overall packages on other lines that compare with American's Your Choice and United's Travel Options combined promotions, but several other lines offer at least some of the same features individually. Our Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees posts the more significant of these, along with the prices. Among the most important:
- Checked baggage. The best deals are two bags without charge on Southwest and one on JetBlue.
- Ticket changes: Southwest is alone with no-fee changes.
- Extra legroom: JetBlue's outstanding legroom (38-inch pitch) is by far the industry's best, with prices up to $60 for transcon flights. Frontier's legroom isn't quite that good, but a reasonable deal at $15-$25 per flight. But Virgin America's "Main Cabin Select" is incredibly overpriced: On a transcon flight, regular coach is $149, but exit-row seating is $462.
Early boarding, priority lines, and such are a zero-sum game. If you pay, you experience minor improvements, but if you don't pay, your trip is marginally worse. If the overhead bin is full by the time you finally board, for example, that's probably because the paid-for early boarders grabbed the space. Ditto with preferred lines and such.
Nevertheless, you can expect other airlines to add as many fees and extras as they think will generate revenues. Get used to it.
Do you think any of these fees and packages are worth it? Which ones? Tell us about it by adding a comment below.