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Airline extras: Annoying now, worse later

SmarterTravel

We frequently hear from readers who question extra charges or add-ons to their air travel bills. Sadly, extra charges are becoming the norm rather than the exception, to the extent that you often find it hard to make valid price comparisons among competitive lines. Some of the most common added charges include:

  • Taxes and user fees imposed by external agencies—governments, public authorities, airports, and such.
  • Optional extra charges—announced in advance—for features, amenities, and conveniences that were once bundled into the basic price of your ticket. As airlines try to pare costs and increase revenues, many try to keep advertised prices low by nickel-and-diming their customers for everything but the basic flight.
  • Mandatory extras that airlines exclude from advertised prices but tack on somewhere along the line. This practice is an out-and-out scam, but that doesn’t seem to deter airlines outside the U.S. from using it.

Sadly, the problem of extra charges is likely to get worse, not better. Here’s a rundown of what you can expect now—and what you might face in the future—in the way of extras on your air ticket. Next week I’ll cover hotels, rental cars, and other travel suppliers.

Taxes and user fees

The U.S. Department of Transportation requires that airlines include applicable federal air ticket taxes in the published fare—a requirement that bars all sorts of deceptions airlines might otherwise try. And the principle of federal pre-emption prevents state and local governments from taxing air tickets without explicit governmental approval. Accordingly, I don’t expect any creative new fees applied to air tickets. Unfortunately, other countries have no such legal limits, so many foreign airlines are free to add all sorts of fees.

You face several airport-based user fees.

  • Airports in the U.S. are authorized to apply “passenger facility charges” (PFCs) on air tickets, which many airports now do. PFCs are not included in the posted fare but they are collected when you buy your ticket. Instead of PFCs, many foreign airports assess arrival and departure fees and taxes—sometimes collected with your ticket, other times collected separately at the airport.
  • You also pay a fee for security screening at U.S. airports—again collected with your ticket.
  • Customs and Immigration authorities in the U.S. and elsewhere add fees and charges—added to your ticket purchase in the U.S., sometimes collected separately in other countries.

Airlines are allowed to exclude all of those fees and charges from their advertised fares, and they can add up to a big hit on your travel cost—occasionally raising the total cost of a round-trip international ticket by more than $100.

Outside the U.S., you can expect even more such taxes and fees in the future, including some that have nothing to do with air travel. France is in the process of adding a stiff air ticket tax that will be used to fund humanitarian programs in the Third World—a laudable goal, perhaps, but clearly unrelated to travel. Other European governments are looking at similar levies.

Optional extras

Many airlines have already unbundled meal service from the basic price of the ticket, especially in economy class.

  • You pay for a meal, brownbag, or you don’t eat.
  • Many have added their own charge for curbside baggage check-in—in addition to the tip most travelers have given skycaps.
  • Many lines have charged for inflight movies and alcoholic beverages for some time.
  • Most already charge extra for phone or airport-counter reservations and ticketing.
  • It’s a foregone conclusion that travelers will pay for the onboard wireless Internet service that’s on almost every traveler’s wish list.

You can glean some ideas of the future from recent initiatives here and overseas.

  • American Eagle is already experimenting with a charge for the usually-free soft drinks, coffee, or tea.
  • Several low-fare lines overseas are charging for each piece of checked baggage—no more “free” baggage allowance.
  • Air Canada charges extra for a “comfort” package of a blanket plus an inflatable pillow.
  • Some European charter lines already charge extra for the extra-legroom exit-row and bulkhead seat assignments; some charge extra for any advanced seat assignment at all.
  • Some writers have speculated that airlines might soon charge extra for the preferred aisle and window seats.

You can expect U.S. airlines to take a hard look at these and other possibilities. I just hope that if airlines start charging for checked bags, they also charge for carry-on bags—otherwise, the scramble to stuff all kinds of bags into the overhead bins will become insufferable.

One interesting note in all this: At least in the U.S., the old-time giant lines—the ones some writers still laughably call “full service” lines—seem more likely to add lots of nuisance charges than the low-fare lines, many of which are stressing no-cost extras such as inflight entertainment and snacks.

Mandatory extras

Federal requirements I mentioned above prevent U.S. airlines from adding any mandatory extras other than federally approved user fees and airport charges. You can feel reasonably safe from such charges in the future.

Foreign lines, however, face no such constraints.

  • Over the past two years, many of them have added “fuel” or “energy” surcharges that they exclude from the advertised ticket prices.
  • Many also assess booking fees, fees for credit-card use, fees for telephone reservations, and such.

European low-fare airlines are fond of offering a few seats at ludicrously low fares, but the total trip cost is still substantial, due to the fees and charges. I expect foreign lines to keep up those deceptions—no matter what happens to the price of oil.

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