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$1 for a bag of airline pretzels? And a blanket?

Airlines are starting to charge for many services that once were free — such as assigned seating, paper tickets and blankets.
United Airlines Begins Charging For Curbside Check-In
If you want to check your luggage curbside, it could cost up to $3 a bag.Tim Boyle / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ask for a pillow and blanket to help get through a long flight and you may be out of luck. Or you may be able to buy a “comfort package” from Air Canada for $2.

Like to check your luggage curbside? That could cost up to $3 a bag.

Airlines are starting to charge for many services that once were free — such as assigned seating, paper tickets and blankets.

Air travelers who don’t fly often may be in for some unpleasant surprises when they reach the airport this summer.

“They’re going to be confused and they’re going to be somewhat upset,” said Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travelers Coalition. “Is it going to stop them from flying? No.”

Intense competition from low-fare airlines along with high jet-fuel prices have led many established carriers to cut back or charge passengers for amenities.

Many airlines no longer serve meals on flights, instead charging for snack boxes and sandwiches.

Sharon Ansara, a government supervisor from El Paso, Texas, flew an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Washington Monday morning.

“We didn’t even get peanuts,” she said after the 2-1/2 hour flight. “They offered us a snack pack for $4. It stinks.”

American spokesman Tim Wagner said that passengers have made it clear that their first priority in buying an airline ticket is price. The company offers a la carte services — such as snack packs — for those willing to pay for them.

Air Canada, which recently emerged from bankruptcy, decided against eliminating pillows and blankets, as some airlines have done. Instead, the airline decided to give passengers the choice of buying an inflatable pillow and a light fleece blanket for $2, according to spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur.

There are limits to what passengers will pay for.

American Eagle, which flies commuter flights for American, experimented in January with charging passengers for soft drinks.

“They evaluated customer response,” Wagner said. “The customer response was, ’No, we don’t want to pay $1 for a soft drink.”’ The test ended, he said.

Some services once taken for granted are now viewed as amenities as the burden of ticketing now falls on the passenger with the home computer instead of airline employees.

Talking to an airline reservation agent instead of booking a ticket on the Internet will add $5 or $10 to the price of a ticket. A paper ticket instead of a computer-generated one will cost $20 or $30 for a domestic flight.

Passengers are also finding that the limits on baggage size and weight are lower, and that airlines are enforcing them. For most airlines, passengers are charged at least $25 for a bag that weighs more than 50 pounds. A third checked bag will cost $80 on many airlines.

Some airlines are now even charging to reserve seats with extra legroom.

United Airlines charges $24-$99 to sit in the Economy Plus section, which has five extra inches of leg room.

Some international carriers also charge for aisle or bulkhead seats. Northwest Airlines in March began charging $15 for exit rows some forward aisle seats.

Carol Mundt, a retiree who lives in the Washington area, travels frequently for visits and vacations. She heard about Northwest’s new seat assignment charges.

“I was appalled that they would charge me for my aisle seat,” she said while waiting to pick up a friend at Washington’s Reagan National Airport.

Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said Northwest has to be able to compete against low-cost airlines like Southwest, which doesn’t assign seats at all.

Southwest, which carried more people in the U.S. than any other airline, doesn’t charge for a la carte services, with the exception of overweight and oversize bags.

A soft drink, a bag of pretzels and a changed ticket don’t cost extra, said Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart.

But Southwest doesn’t offer services such as assigned seating or keeping an eye on an unaccompanied child who’s making a connection.

Continental Airlines is one of the few that still offers hot meals on domestic flights.

Sandy Gorie, 45, a real estate project manager, lives in Cleveland and takes Continental to Washington on Monday mornings and returns on Friday nights.

“I’ve been doing this since November and my Continental experience has been great,” she said.