Are Airlines Going Too Far?

We all know that the airline industry is in survival mode. Air carriers are struggling to stay afloat in the face of daunting fuel costs and plunging travel demand (in the last year, domestic carriers alone lost $11 billion).

In response, airlines are piling on the surcharges, pulling the "free" perks, and packing in extra seats. The real question is-are they going too far in their quest for efficiency?

Believe it or not, the airline industry even has a specific conference dedicated to "ancillary fees"-and how to collect these extras without inciting consumer revolt (in 2008 airlines extracted $10.25 billion in these surcharges worldwide-that's an increase of 346% over 2006). Some airlines, such as Europe-based Ryanair, have even suggested charging for restroom use (fortunately, that never came to pass).

Here, a look at some of the ways that airlines are pushing their luck with consumers.

Booking Fees
The gouging begins with booking. If you don't purchase tickets online via the airline website, you're instantly assessed a $5-$25 surcharge (the only exception is Southwest Airlines). Allegiant even forces you to buy your ticket at the airport. Want to change your itinerary? You'll be asked to cough up as much $150 on American, Continental, United and US Airways, plus any difference in fares between your new and old dates. Cheap, nonrefundable fare classes can't be altered at all, while discount tickets purchased through third-party travel sites or agents carry even greater penalties. Flying confirmed standby on the same day of travel used to be a complimentary courtesy. Now most airlines charge to take an earlier or later flight on the same day as your original flight if you want a confirmed seat (you can still take your chances without a confirmation for free).

Costly Miles
Frequent fliers beware-flying for free isn't as easy as it used to be either. Most airlines now assess a booking fee for frequent flyer mile redemption; reserving without sufficient notice (an outrageous 22 days on Delta) will cost even more. Higher mileage requirements recently went into effect, re-banking miles for unused tickets (even with advance notice) costs up to $100, most airlines won't even credit your account for flights under 500 miles, and American now charges moolah in addition to miles for upgrades. Same goes for any vouchers, which can't be booked online, which means that you're facing a phone surcharge.

Pre-Seat Selection
Want to select your steerage (ahem, economy) seats in advance? Air Canada, AirTran, and Allegiant now charge for this "perk." Then there's "preferred" seat selection, which means that if you'll be charged extra if you choose a seat near the front, a window, the aisle, or in a roomy exist row (depending on the route, JetBlue, Virgin America, and United charge upwards of $100 for this privilege). These seats are usually released 24 hours prior to a flight; if you want to nab one you'll need to check in early online. United has even turned "extra leg room" into an annual service, charging $299 for Economy Plus, which entitles you and a companion to seats with five inches of extra legroom whenever available.

Baggage Fees
In the past couple of years, baggage fees have become standard procedure. Airlines now charge up to $25 if you exceed 50 pounds per check-in bag and in some cases one extra pound could cost up to $175. This on top of charging for checked luggage, initially your second bag, now the first on carriers like American, Northwest, United, Delta, and US Airways. US Airways and United even charge an additional $5 if you pay at check-in instead of opting for the "online discount." Even curbside check-in incurs a fee. The result? A lot less room in overhead compartments as more and more people stick to carry-ons.

Shrinking Seats and Less Leg Room
These days, it seems like airlines are trying to stuff as many seats as legally possible into new or reconfigured aircraft. But is that smart business? Kathy Kuhn alleges she injured her knee while trying to climb over a broken armrest during a Dec 7, 2009 Detroit-Las Vegas flight, necessitating surgery. The legal system didn't consider her claim frivolous, as her lawsuit against Northwest Airlines, which denied liability, was moved last month from state to federal court in Detroit.

Loss of Freebies
The days of smiling flight attendants, free decks of playing cards, and complimentary meals are long gone. Now, passengers expect to be charged for everything snacks to pillows. US Airways even tried charging $2 for non-alcoholic drinks, but eliminated the fee when other airlines didn't follow suit (expect this issue to reappear).

Sneaky Surcharges
Airlines now present consumers with a smorgasbord of surcharges. The carriers like to call these extras "convenience fees", suggesting that passengers can save money on fares by selecting which extras they would like to pay for. In some cases these surcharges truly are optional, such as the ones described above (blanket, headphones), in other cases they're less so. Want to fly with your infant? It will cost you up to 10 percent extra, depending on the airline. If you're flying British Airways or Air France, your tyke will also get slapped with a fuel surcharge. Airport improvement fees are another sneaky surcharge some airlines tack on. And whether you believe in global warming or not, you'll even start paying more green to go green: The U.K. doubled its Air Passenger Duty, taxing consumers for flights' greenhouse-gas emissions ($80 for coach passengers, $160 for first-class).

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