For years, airlines have rolled out new fees to foist onto passengers like clockwork—see American Airlines and Southwest Airlines as the two latest examples. There is somewhat of a silver lining, though: With every new fee added, it becomes harder for airlines to come up with new things to charge for.
Around the globe, airlines charged an estimated $36 billion in ancillary fees last year — “ancillary” being the industry term for anything above the base flight cost, including charges for baggage, meals, seat reservations, and so forth. The $36 billion figure represents an increase of 11% globally compared to the 2011 total. In North America, the fee total paid by passengers rose “just” around 5%. Compared to the fee increase from 2010 to 2011—roughly 50% globally—last year’s hike in fees almost comes as a relief. What’s more, there’s been sign that U.S. flier are paying slightly fewer baggage fees as more passengers grow accustomed to packing less and flying only with carry-on luggage.
Of course, just because the overall pace at which fees are rising has decreased doesn’t mean that airlines are falling out of love with them. What it appears to mean, though, is that carriers are slowly but surely running out of ideas for new fees to pass along to their customers.
This seems to be the case for the nation’s most fee-crazed carrier, Spirit Airlines. By one estimate, the average Spirit passenger pays an extra $103 in fees for every round trip with the airline. And that estimate was announced in mid-2012—before (of course) Spirit bumped up the cost of a few of its fees. For every $3 collected by Spirit, only $2 comes as a result of payment for flights; the other one-third of total revenues comes from Spirit customers paying for fees including carry-on luggage, seat assignments, bottled water, and more.
But in an interview with American Public Media Marketplace, Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said that “we probably are almost at the limit of” adding new fees. “Our fares pretty much include the right to get on the plane and get off at the other end, to have a safe and on-time flight and that’s pretty much it. So there’s not really much else we can take out of that.”
Baldanza, whose airline is the subject of a popular boycott campaign on Facebook due to its fee-happy ways, defended the company’s reputation as the “dollar store of the sky” by explaining “we do things a little bit differently”:
“What we do is we strip out all of the things that can be a decision point for the customer — like whether you take bags or not, or if you want to pick where you sit on the plane, or whether you’re going to eat on the plane or not.”
At long last, it appears as if there’s little or nothing left to strip out. To which travelers might respond with a gigantic Wheewwwww! It’s about time.
Except we all know that this is probably not true. Creative ideas for new airlines fees will continue to be floated—charging to get off the plane first, for instance, or hiking airfares after purchase due to fuel cost increases—and if Spirit and other carriers think they can make money by passing such charges along to customers, you can bet they’ll do just that. You can also bet that the costs of checked luggage, seat reservations, and other services we pay for right now will only grow more expensive going forward. So even if there aren’t new fees, we’ll probably be paying more in fees.