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A lot of nickels and dimes

Struggling airlines may be lowering fares to attract customers, but they're boosting fees on everything from oversized luggage to ticket changes.

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002


Travelers are enjoying the cheapest air fares in more than a decade, but they're facing a growing number of new or increased fees imposed by cash-strapped airlines.

Want a paper ticket? Expect to shell out as much as $25. Checking a third bag? That can cost up to $80 each way. Like to catch an earlier flight home? If you're holding a nonrefundable ticket, most airlines will charge $100 to fly standby.

Even free flights aren't necessarily free. Some airlines make you pay to book a trip with frequent flier miles as far as three weeks ahead of travel. Many carriers charge fees -- up to $100 -- to change an award ticket or cancel the flight and redeposit miles into your account.

"It's little things that make a little more money for them and take it out of the consumer's pocket," said Terry Trippler, a former travel agent who runs the air travel Web site terrytrippler.com. "They're nickel and diming you to death."

Even when they aren't adding or boosting fees, airlines are cracking down on existing charges for things like oversize and overweight luggage.

This summer, Alaska Airlines gave out DVD players and high-definition TVs to ticket agents who collected the most fees. Delta Air Lines raked in an extra $12-million between May and July simply by reminding employees to enforce air fare rules and service fees.

Big hub-and-spoke carriers are alienating travelers at the same time they're dying for their business, say air travel advocates such as Joe Brancatelli.

"It's not just a matter of money," said Brancatelli, who owns the business travel Web site JoeSentMe.com. "They're annoying the hell out of their customers."

Low-fare airlines that don't charge some of the fees are trying to gain a marketing edge. America West Airlines trumpeted last month that it wouldn't make customers pay to fly standby or eliminate the value of unused nonrefundable tickets.

Southwest Airlines produced a side-by-side comparison, called "Points of Difference," that shows its fee and rules policies with those of competitors. Among the Southwest advantages: no additional fee for paper tickets, changing a ticket or for a child flying alone.

While Southwest and a few other low-fare airlines turned small profits during the industry's worst-ever financial slump, the biggest carriers gushed red ink and are desperately looking for ways to slow the bleeding.

The nation's airlines in 2001 lost $7.7-billion and are projected to pile up another $9-billion in losses this year, according to the Air Transport Association, a trade group representing major carriers. The three biggest airlines -- American, United and Delta -- and No. 7 US Airways combined to make up most of the red ink.

Because demand for air travel is so weak, airlines can't raise fares to bolster sagging revenues, said David Swierenga, the association's chief economist. The average fare for a one-way trip of 1,000 miles in September was $119.83, the lowest since 1988.

"Raising prices is a very, very difficult thing to do right now," Swierenga said.

When airlines tried to boost fares in recent months, competitors refused to match and forced them to pull back the increase. By contrast, carriers have been quick to match new or higher service fees, said Jon Douglas, news editor of the travel Web site SmarterLiving.com.

"The strategy is to introduce a fee and hope travelers get used to it," he said. "They make a little extra money without the risk people won't fly them."

* * *

US Airways made the biggest splash in August by announcing that customers would lose the value of nonrefundable tickets if they didn't use them or rebook their trip before the plane took off. All but a handful of competitors quickly matched the new rule.

But the sheer number of changes in fees and rules has travel experts struggling just to keep up.

"We feel as though the airlines are trying anything to make as much money as they can by doing everything but flying the plane," said Joan Bailey, president of Hill's Travel Service in St. Petersburg.

The biggest question her clients ask is whether they'll get slapped with a fee for their luggage.

Weight and size limits haven't changed for free checked bags: 70 pounds and 62 inches (height, depth and length combined). But ticket agents who might have ignored violators before are cracking down.

A bag that's too large or too heavy typically costs $75 or $80 each way. Some airlines charge separately for exceeding size and weight limits -- or up to $320 in extra charges for a round trip.

Most airlines also cut back the number of free checked bags from three to two. Delta passengers are checking 20 percent more bags since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the airline wanted to "better manage the dramatic rise in checked baggage," spokeswoman Katie Connell said.

Alaska Airlines tightened enforcement of luggage rules so passengers don't get away with an oversize or overweight bag on one flight, then are charged extra on the return trip, spokesman Jack Walsh said.

"You end up with an unhappy customer," he said. "We're trying to make it more consistent."

If anything, the crackdown has confused and angered travelers even more, said Toni Van Pelt, owner of International Travel Associates in St. Petersburg.

Myra Terry, a friend who accompanied her on a trip to Uruguay last month, left her large suitcase home. Although the empty bag was within size limits, Terry worried a ticket agent would hit her with a fee when it was packed with the stuff she bought on the trip.

On the flight home, Terry had to carry a large picture frame and big wool coat while pulling a wheeled bag behind her. "My blazer and everything in the (checked) suitcase was squashed," she said.

* * *

Because airlines announced the changes in bits and pieces, or not at all, many customers aren't aware of them.

United Airlines doubled the fee for a child flying alone last year to $60. US Airways and Northwest charge $20 for buying a discount Web fare over the phone instead of online. US Airways and Continental have stopped giving away alcoholic drinks to international passengers on bargain fares.

Most airlines began charging for paper tickets last spring, starting at $10, then bumping up the fee to $20 or $25.

Some travelers still like having a paper ticket that's easier to exchange for a seat on a different airline. But few apparently are willing to pay for it. Eighty-five percent of Delta's domestic passengers flew on electronic tickets in August, the airline says.

Perhaps the least-noticed fee was imposed without fanfare by American Airlines.

The nation's largest airline began charging members of the AAdvantage frequent flier program $100 to change the date or time on its lowest-mileage award tickets. American also extended the advance purchase period of an "expedited" award ticket, which carries a fee of $50 to $75, from two days to 21 days.

The fees weren't new, said Randy Petersen, editor of Inside Flyer magazine. American had the same rules four or five years ago and quietly brought them back in August, he said.

Other carriers recently increased fees to book award tickets within two weeks of traveling or to cancel a free flight and put the miles back into your account.

But the fees affect so few travelers, the airlines don't face much fallout, Petersen said. With carriers laying off thousands of employees, making travelers pay for extra services isn't such a bad thing, he said.

"The airlines are trying to survive," said Petersen, who has business relationships with a number of carriers. "If you're the exception, maybe it should cost you some money. If you're a regular passenger, (the fees) don't make much difference to you."

Some low-fare carriers are betting he's wrong.

America West adopted a new price structure in March with lower business fares. Now the airline is promoting that it won't impose the "use it or lose it" rules on customers with nonrefundable tickets or charge them to fly standby like its larger competitors.

"While other airlines are further complicating and increasing the cost of business travel . . . we are working with passengers and travel agents to make business travel easier and a better value," said Scott Kirby, an America West executive vice president, in a news release.

Southwest is also playing up ways it's bucking the trend of more fees and restrictive rules.

The nation's No. 6 airline still lets customers who don't use nonrefundable tickets apply the value to another flight within a year. Southwest lets customers change regular or frequent flier award tickets without charging a fee.

"We've always said we're simpler way to go," spokeswoman Christine Turneabe-Connelly said. "Even more so in hard times."

-- Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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