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As I flew yesterday between New York and Denver on United, I was amazed on how filled the flight was. Granted I cannot remember the last time I had a middle seat empty next to me. However on this flight, mid-afternoon, midweek not one empty seat was visible. Even the gate attendants in New York were advising if seated in Group 5 the chances of overhead space being available were nil and thus they were offering no charge bag check in advance.
Yet it is no secret the airlines continue to barely make a profit. Between the cost of fuel, staffing, maintenance and other expenses; the cycle continues even as consolidation between the legacy carriers has been supported to increase profitability and continue competition.
Yet does the number $36,000,000,000 seem large? Yes, $36 Billion with a “B”. That is the estimated amount of money the world’s largest airlines collected in ancillary fees during 2012. You know those fees for services that used to be gratis including but not limited to checking bags, advanced seat assignments, aisle seats, seating towards the front of the cabin......
Well, get ready to tighten your seat belt as additional fees may be coming down the aisle in the near future including but not limited to:
Premier Boarding: You have probably witnessed this phenomenon of certain passengers being allowed to board first including 1st Class and other passengers considered “premium” to the airlines. United Airlines in specific markets is offering the option to economy passengers to board with the initial groups and to have access to dedicated security gates with their Premier Access option.
While a few peers of mine in the travel industry have suggested this fee is elitist and allows one to board maybe 15-20 minutes earlier; the reality is early borders have the best access to overhead bins which on most airlines is still free of charge. This may be a value for some. I see the true value for the family traveling together to allow extra time to get settled and comfortable before boarding with the masses.
Of note I admire United’s offer to allow our heroes of the Armed Forces early boarding. I have even witnessed when available United personnel offering 1st Class upgrades to those in uniform.
Home Delivery of Baggage: United has started to test market a home delivery for your baggage. Starting at $29.95 the service will as it markets deliver your bag(s) to an address of your choosing. Again, some may view as elitist. Yet for some there is a value in not having to wait for their bags on the carousel. Many of my clients have been shipping their luggage for years to and from destinations so they can travel as unencumbered as possible and I know their shipping costs far exceed the $29.95 starting fee. If successful in the test markets (the service has expanded from 6 to 36 cities recently), watch for the service to roll out to other cities. Of course if the airlines loose you bag, assuming it is found the airlines will deliver free of charge.
Wi-Fi on Planes: I was recently on a cross-continent flight and Wi-Fi was available for a nominal charge. I heard a few grumblings about how wi-fi service is gratis at the local Starbucks. First, fellow passengers you are not at Starbucks sipping a $4 coffee concoction; you are 35,000’ in the air traveling at 500+ mph and second, I assume you pay for wi-fi service at home and you or your employer pays for it at the office. Thus I have to ask, “And why should it be gratis en-flight?”
Yet a client recently commented on how Southwest not only charged for wi-fi service but was also offering on a trial basis streaming movies for an additional $5/device. My client was appalled. All I could opine in the conversation was how I just paid $4.99 to the Apple ITunes to rent the remake of Total Recall and how I wish I could get a refund and yes I know theaters do not provide refunds either. On a domestic flight, if one cannot keep themselves occupied for a few hours with a newspaper or other reading material; to me the $5 seems like a bargain.
Fee for Specialized Meals: I actually consider this genius. KLM (an airline based in the Netherlands) has been offering its passengers the option of pre-ordering and paying for specialized meals on certain routes. While a standard meal is available gratis, a specialized meal with a fee attached is available. I believe this fee is developing a market that we did not realize existed. My only issue, I believe vegetarian meals should be gratis as well as those with religious dietary restrictions i.e. Kosher, Hindu, Halal and so forth and to date I believe they continue to be included in the price of a ticket. However if one wishes to upgrade from the standard economy meal, why not? It is a choice not a requirement. My suggestion, always order a Kosher meal or similar, you will be served first as those meals are segregated from the standard cart.
The list of ancillary fees both present and proposed can go on and on and I understand the frustration and I am not necessarily defending the airlines. However, when passengers complain about ancillary fees for services once provided gratis, we must collectively also consider the following:
1) Airline Tickets are the Cheapest in History: While many passengers do not remember the days of regulated ticket prices, the reality was, air travel was quite expensive. When factoring in inflation, the effect of airline deregulation and increased competition has provided cost savings benefits to the majority of air travelers in the United States and worldwide.
2) Online Ticket Sellers: With the Internet and various vendors searching out the cheapest fares and routes has become commonplace. The systems in place insure competition between airlines and their clients who may demand the lowest fare possible.
3) More People are Flying: The reality is with the lower cost of airline tickets more people are flying. As we climb out of the recession the numbers will only increase. Coupled with yield management practices of the airlines, the profit motive will insure the airlines can capture the highest yield for every seat available.
I am old enough to remember flying back in the glory days of the legacy carriers. A time when flight attendants on American Airlines actually tossed a Caesar Salad in the aisle for passengers to witness with three tosses so as not to bruise the lettuce. An era before 9/11 when silverware was made of metal and drinks were presented in glass and not plastic.
Yet this era was also when flying was regulated and for many cost-prohibitive. The marketplace is an amazing equalizer as buyers and sellers truly dictate ticket prices and fees for service. While we may all wish for a return to the glory days of the legacy airlines and their client-centric service, how many of us are willing to pay the tariff?