Airline fees go through the roof … but are we actually surprised?

For airline consumers, the news has been unremittingly bleak in the past few years, what with ancillary fees rising and in-flight comfort going the way of the dodo bird.

But when you think about it, this is something that was bound to happen.

According to the Associated Press, the average roundtrip fare for domestic flights in the United States today is approximately $500.

Let’s compare this to when I was a student in college 40+ years ago. Back then, coach airfare between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Nashville, TN typically ran approximately $250 — so roughly half of what today’s figure would be.

But when we calculate the inflation factor, that $250 fare translates to nearly $1,200.

The equivalent of $1,200 a pop explains why it was financially necessary for me to stay in Nashville over various holidays such as Thanksgiving break instead of flying home for only a few days or a week.

On the plus side, flying back then was a breeze compared to today. Not just the stress and irritation of the terminal security lines, but also far fewer travelers, with planes often only one-third or half-full.

Deregulation followed by vastly cheaper airfares have led to flying being within nearly everyone’s budget, which is all very egalitarian but also making the air travel experience high on the “frustration factor.”

How about the airlines? They’ve had to deal with all sorts of regulatory developments along with sharply higher operating costs — jet fuel just for starters.

And while the airlines have benefited from serving more travelers, that hasn’t made up for the decline in fare prices.  So it isn’t surprising that the airlines started cutting in other ways.

First it was in-flight meals, moving away from delicious hot platters to sandwiches … then to peanuts or pretzels … and now to nothing sometimes.

Next, it was the removal of pillows and blankets.

Accessing in-flight entertainment costs extra, too — as well as gaining access to cyber-communications.

And has anyone noticed the “squeeze play” going on in the coach section? That isn’t your imagination.  Today’s typical coach seat is 17 inches wide, which is nearly a 10% decrease from the 18.5 inches from about a decade ago.  (That corresponds with an average 8% heavier traveler over the same period, by the way.)

Space constraints spill over into the ever-smaller footprint of airplane lavatories. If you find that you can’t turn around in them, that’s because they’re literally smaller than a phone booth.  I know I try to avoid using them as much as possible.

In any case, all this nibbling around the edges hasn’t been able to make up for airline revenue losses elsewhere. So now we have fees being levied for checked luggage — in the range of $25 to $40 per item.  For a while the charges were levied on extra pieces of luggage, but now Delta, American Airlines and United Airlines are charging for the first checked item, too.  Among the major carriers, only Southwest remains a holdout — but one wonders for how much longer.

And reservation change fees? They’re increasing for everyone — even people who have traditionally been willing to pay more for an air ticket if they’d have the opportunity alter their travel plans without a being charged whopping change fee.  Those fees can sometimes go as high as $200 — nearly the cost of purchasing an entirely new one-way ticket.

According to transportation and hospitality marketing firm IdeaWorks, in 2017 the top 10 airlines brought in nearly $30 billion in ancillary revenues — a figure that’s sure to be significantly larger in 2018. It’s almost as if the ancillary revenues are as important as the base fare.  As Aditi Shrikant, a journalist for Vox puts it, “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.”

In their own lumbering way, the U.S. Congress is now making noises about cracking town on what it characterizes as unreasonable airline fees.  I’m not sure that any such legislative moves would have the desired effect.  Already, Doug Parker, American Airlines’ CEO, predicts that of Congress moves in that direction, the industry would respond by making airline tickets nonrefundable:  “We — like the baseball team, like the opera — would say, ‘We’re sorry, it was nonrefundable.'”

What are your thoughts about the unbundling of services and fees in the airline industry? While that business model gives passengers the choice of flying for less without access to the amenities, it turns the process of purchasing an airline ticket into something that seems akin to a fleecing.

Do you have particular criticisms about the current state of affairs? What would you prefer to be different about the scenario?  Please share your comments below.

One thought on “Airline fees go through the roof … but are we actually surprised?

  1. I remember air travel in the 1950s, when everyone wore a tie and dress heels. I was too young to pay, but it was clearly an upper-middle-class, if deafening, expense–and experience. With deregulation it became cheaper and has remained so.

    Planes are much quieter than they were even 15 years ago. They are far more on time than they ever were. And they are faster and safer.

    But amenities have suffered in the race for price. I’m guessing there’s a marketing study out there which showed the actual number matters to people, who expect it to be $300 or less. So rather than increase it, airlines trim around the edges, sometimes the edges of your seat! (The same thing is happening with orange juice. Big bottles have now been reduced from 59 to 52 ounces without change in price. Nobody wants to see the price go over $5, or there would probably be customer resistance.)

    I knew the illusion of luxury travel had to die the day in 1972 my seat-mate, a surfer dude from LA, flew to New York sitting next to me wearing no shirt! So now I treat it like getting on the bus. I’ve found a grey business suit made in Japan which is washable and doesn’t wrinkle and keeps being mistaken for Brooks Brothers wool. I can pack lightly with no-iron cotton and still put everything in the overhead rack. Meanwhile, who needs to bring CDs and heavy equipment along for music on a trip; our devices have spared us many a pound.

    The airlines can do what they like to me, so long as they get me there fast. But forget any idea of romance. United is not Cunard. It’s more like the bus system in Newark.

    We’ve come a long way from the days of “Coffee, Tea or Me?”. Your wallet is probably happy. The rest of our affect….maybe not so much!

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