How Airline Fees Screw Over Travelers Who Don’t Pay Them

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

When travelers complain about the rise of airline fees, the carriers rolling out the fees like to point out that the charges are strictly optional. No one’s being forced to pay for anything they don’t want, they say. Nonetheless, it’s the travelers who don’t pay up who often pay a price for all sorts of perfectly “voluntary” airline fees.

Here’s a look at some of the ways airline travel is getting worse for passengers who don’t want to pay extra fees—and sometimes even for passengers who do cough up extra cash as well:

Extra Legroom
In theory, no traveler should mind the fact that airline passengers can pay extra to sit in a row with XL legroom. But where do you think that extra legroom comes from? For the most part, seats with extra legroom come directly at the expense of the comfort of the rest of the seats in the plane. A decade ago, the industry standard was 32 inches between seats. Now, the standard is 31 inches, and regular seats on carriers such as Spirit Airlines come with a cramped 28 inches of leg space. At the same time that airlines are shrinking leg space in most rows, they’re adding space to other rows that they can sell at a premium. The result is travelers are getting squeezed either literally (with less legroom) or figuratively (via extra legroom fees).

(MORE: Could It Be? Some Actual Good News for Airline Passengers)

The Boston Globe reported that JetBlue, which used to be known for having the most comfortable coach classes of all domestic carriers, expects to take in $150 million in its expanded extra-legroom program. As airlines add more premium rows with extra legroom, it not only means that legroom shrinks for everyone else, but also that there are fewer rows available that don’t require an additional fee.

Sitting Together
Similarly, on the surface, it seems like no one gets hurt simply because some travelers are willing to pay an extra fee to reserve specific seats on the plane. But of course, if most fliers pay for such “privileges,” it’s the travelers who don’t who get stuck with the worst seats—usually, middle seats, possibly rows away from friends and family.

As seat reservation fees have become increasingly popular, an outcry has arisen regarding the likelihood of families getting split up on planes if they don’t pay up to ensure they’ll have seats next to each other. The airlines have said that, regardless of fees, they’d try to sit families together. But they’re under no obligation to ensure that Mom sits anywhere near, say, her 3-year-old daughter. That’d change if the proposed “Families Flying Together Act of 2012 is passed by Congress. “Families should not be stuck paying hidden fees, or buying ‘premium’ seats, simply because they wish to be seated together on crowded flights,” says Jerrold Nadler (D – NY), the bill’s sponsor. “It is positively absurd to expect a two or three-year-old to sit unattended, next to strangers, on an airplane. It is up to air carriers to make their seating policies clear and easily accessible to the public.”

(MORE: 9 Products Enjoying a Curious Surge in Sales)

Checked Luggage
U.S. Airlines collected $3.36 billion in baggage fees in 2011. That’s actually a slight decrease from 2010, when travelers paid $3.4 billion in fees for checked and carry-on luggage.

While paying to bring bags on a vacation is annoying, the experience of flying when not paying for bags may even be more annoying. Ever since checked luggage fees became the standard, the competition for space in overhead bins has heated up. As USA Today noted this past spring, some airlines have redesigned overhead bins to accommodate more bags from more passengers hoping to avoid checked luggage fees. Even so, the rise in checked luggage fees has caused longer lines at TSA checkpoints because there are more carry-ons to be inspected, and the boarding process has been slowed as more time is needed for passengers to stow all of their bags and possessions that otherwise might have been checked.

(MORE: Bye-Bye Wallets: Can a Phone Replace Cards and Cash?)

Again, the net result is that either you pay up or the experience is more painful. Actually, considering that luggage policies slow down security checkpoints and boarding for everyone, these fees make traveling worse for everyone, whether you’re paying the fees or not.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

14 comments
dlws8607
dlws8607

There the legislators go pushing another law that gives special privileges to a group.  Of course, typical these special privileges only go to females.

Mike259
Mike259

Not a big fan of airlines, but it seems equitable to have the person who brings 200 lbs of luggage to pay a little more than the guy who is just carrying a laptop. Or have the overweight person next to me who spill over into my seat and makes me lean away pay for an extra seat. Why should he/she take 1/2 seat space for free when I paid for a full seat?

Kid of Street
Kid of Street

I had a couple who wanted to switch with my aisle seat so they could sit together. I declined, but they suckered someone else a few rows down.

Sorry, if you want to sit together, pay the extra fee or book earlier (it was a non-emergency situation ie they weren't going home for a funeral or something). Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.

BeerBrewerDan
BeerBrewerDan

Of course, there's always this thing called "being nice."  You should try it.

Bojorco
Bojorco

  A parent shouldn't have to be separated from their small child just because they don't pay up.  It's not even poor planning that causes them to be separated.  If they plan to sit together, some airlines charge them for it. 

RedeyeMama
RedeyeMama

Not being seated together is not always due to poor planning. I am a very frequent traveller (85k miles in the last 8 months) and recently travelled with my family internationally. I booked months ahead and planned everything perfectly. Then we got to the aiport and our first flight was cancelled, the second delayed and suddenly we were moved at the last minute to a new flight.

 I am sure when it happens to you it is unfortunate but when it happens to other people it is poor planning...

PeerReview
PeerReview

I agree, but sadly in America procreating gives one status

Jeffrey Geez Glavick
Jeffrey Geez Glavick

Mnay ways to get screwed and one need not be a member of the mile high club. A super speed rail system is needed, the airlines continiously give less for more $

joemama_knows
joemama_knows

And the costs for the high-speed rail system are subsidized by states and the feds.  Therefore, anyone who doesn't use it is getting screwed by paying for something via taxes that they don't use.  Great solution, jeffrey.

GoldenTiger
GoldenTiger

The title should be "How Airlines Screw Over Travelers". There's a reason people do not pay for these extra services. They either do not need them or the additional cost is just too much. And yes, it is absurd that people who wish to sit together cannot (even if in most cases, one person will be occupying a middle seat), unless they pay extra because the airlines blocked access to window and aisle seats without an additional fee even if they were still available at the time of booking. The parent who did not pay extra and had their 3-year-old kid seated next to strangers has it bad. But it's worse if you are that "stranger" who actually did pay extra for what was supposed to be a more "desirable" seat, but seated next to a 3-year-old away from his/her parent. Then one has no other choice but to offer to swap seats with the parent and the airlines get to keep what you paid for choosing that seat in advance.

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

Invasive and insane post 911 security measures, reduced services, deplorable passenger treatment by airlines, increased costs and many carriers and routes going out of business has made air travel an outright miserable experience.

Use a car, a train or even a boat or just call or Email.

Don't fly, you didn't need to go there that bad.

dlws8607
dlws8607

 GM: It is ironic that you consider yourself a critical thinker given your post.

Weird Review
Weird Review

Interesting article!  I knew it felt like I was losing leg space on planes but I figured it just seemed that way.  I thought it was just a part of being old and crotchety! ;-)

www.weirdreview.com