The hidden costs of à la carte pricing

Image: Travelers checked in for a flight.
Starting May 5, the airlines hope to earn hundreds of millions of dollars through their new baggage fees and whatever else they can unbundle from the price of a standard ticket. Star Tribune / Zuma Press file

Memo from the airlines: Lighten your load or we’ll lighten your wallet.

As of today (Monday, May 5), five of the six major U.S. airlines now charge an extra $25 to check a second bag. The last holdout, American Airlines, will join the club next week, with several other carriers (Alaska Airlines and Air Canada, among them) expected to follow suit in the coming months.

To some, it’s an outrage; to others, it’s only fair. Either way, it’s only the beginning. From snacks to seat selection, we’re about to enter the next great age of unbundled airfares.

Have a snack, pick a seat, talk to a human being (fees may apply)
Not surprisingly, the new baggage fees have been dominating the blogs and discussion boards lately. (In most cases, the fees apply to domestic coach passengers purchasing lower-cost nonrefundable fares while exempting elite-level mileage plan members and travelers purchasing full-fare tickets.)

But while we’ve all been busy whittling down our travel gear (or overstuffing our carry-on bags), it seems the airlines have slipped in a few other add-on charges. Among the newest additions to the “things you’ll pay for that you used to get for free” list:

  • $3 for snacks on Frontier Airlines
  • An extra $5–$30 to reserve a “Choice Seat,” i.e., a window or aisle seat in the first few rows in coach on US Airways (starting May 7)
  • $25–$35 to get phone access to “specially trained customer service agents” during delays and other disruptions on Air Canada

The US Airways program, by the way, simply gets you closer to the exit; it doesn’t buy you any extra legroom. For that, you can fly JetBlue, which has just begun offering seats with 38 inches of seat pitch (vs. a standard 34 inches) for an extra $10–$20 per flight.

Is so-called à la carte pricing a way for travelers to avoid paying for services they don’t use? You bet. Is it a means for airlines to generate revenue when across-the-board fare hikes send potential passengers fleeing? Absolutely. Is it going to offset sky-high fuel prices, restore struggling airlines to profitability and make for a pleasant flying experience for travelers facing a Rubik’s Cube of choices and surcharges? Don’t hold your breath.

Pack light or pay the freight
And it’s only going to get worse when the reality of the new baggage fees hits home. That’s because the widely publicized $25 fee ($20 on JetBlue) is merely a starting point — it applies to one normal-sized bag on a one-way flight. Factor in round-trip travel, extra fees for overweight bags and additional surcharges for third and fourth bags, and you may need to break out the scale and the calculator before heading to the airport.

Maybe you’re a golfer or skier or planning an extended cruise-tour. Check a third bag and you’ll pay another $200 round-trip on most major carriers. Maybe you’re a home-bound college student with a big box of books and other gear. If it’s your third piece of checked luggage and over 50 pounds, you’ll get dinged for both offenses — as much as $160 each way. If it’s oversized (more than 62 linear inches), as well, then congratulations, you’ve just won — or is that lost? — the extra-fee trifecta.

And it’s not just leisure travelers, either. Business travelers from sales reps to trade-show exhibitors often have no choice but to check extra pieces of luggage. Unless they qualify under each airline’s specific exemptions, they’ll find their travel costs hitting new heights.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that those who check extra and/or overweight luggage shouldn’t pay for the privilege or that à la carte pricing for baggage is a bad thing. What I’m suggesting is that there’s more to these new fees than meets the eye and that we haven’t even begun to do a true accounting of the costs and consequences.

Even light packers will feel the pain
That said, some consequences seem all but certain:

  • Those who can’t escape the surcharges will pay them, blaming the airlines for penalizing them (instead of raising fares across the board).
  • Those who can squeeze 49.5 pounds of gear into a standard bag will do so, blaming the airlines when their clothes hit the baggage belt in a broken-zippered heap.
  • Those who can’t get their gear into one bag will haul ever-larger carry-on bags, blaming the airlines for their aching muscles, disappearing legroom and the angry glares of their fellow passengers.
  • And, finally, those who assumed they were immune from the problem because they travel light will find the overhead bins filled to capacity, blaming the airlines for letting those other fellow passengers onboard with too much stuff.

Notice a trend? For their part, the airlines hope to earn hundreds of millions of dollars through their new baggage fees and whatever else they can unbundle from the price of a standard ticket. Maybe they will, but I’m pretty sure they’re also going to reap a whirlwind of even angrier customers along the way.