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

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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).

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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.”

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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.

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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.