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Will airports fleece the fliers?

Airlines continue to pile on fees to squeeze extra cash from a shrinking, ever-more budget-conscious pool of passengers. Will airports follow with extra fees?

Hear that flapping? It’s not cute birds returning from winter vacation. It’s the sound of any extra travel dollars you may have flying out of your wallet.

As you know, airlines have been piling on fees in an effort to squeeze extra cash from a shrinking, ever-more budget-conscious pool of passengers. In-flight meals, pillows and blankets, checked baggage service, legroom, and many other amenities we once assumed were part of our ticket price are now increasingly offered on an a la carte basis. It’s irritating and, at times, infuriating, but by now most travelers have become resigned to it.

Get ready for more.

Airline bean-counters worldwide stay up late figuring out ways to slip in new fees. One airline, Europe’s cheeky Ryanair, has even figured out a way to get passengers to help out with that task. After only half-jokingly floating the idea of putting a pay-box on in-flight lavatories, the airline offered a cash prize (£1,000, or about $1,475) to the passenger with the best idea for a new “discretionary revenue charge.”  More than 12,000 suggestions rolled in and the airline asked travelers to choose a winner from a list of the top five. (Voting closes Friday, April 17.)  Choices include:

  • A fee for toilet paper (imprinted with a picture of the airline CEO’s face)
  • A “corkage” fee for bringing your own food onboard
  • A subscription fee for the airline’s Web site
  • An access fee for a “smoking room” set up in an airplane bathroom
  • A charge for overweight passengers based on body mass index

As of April 14th, 45,000 votes were already cast, with more than 20,000 people voting in favor of charging extra fees for overweight passengers.

Airports doing it too
It’s not just airlines scrambling for extra income. The downturn in air travel means airports, which earn revenue from airline use fees, parking fees, and retail rents, are also feeling the pinch. Like other businesses, airports are cutting back. They’re trimming expenses, canceling or freezing new construction and improvement projects, and laying off staff.  But they’re also looking at ways to boost income. One possible source: you!

Over the past year, many airports have increased terminal parking lot rates or raised the terminal access charges for courtesy vans ferrying passengers to and from hotels and off-site parking lots. Detroit Metropolitan Airport, which has so far been unsuccessful in selling naming rights to its new terminal, has done both. And, after holding steady for 5 and 10 years, respectively, rates in the long-term and economy lots at Portland International Airport will rise, beginning on May 1st.  

At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, which has a “street pricing” policy requiring retailers and restaurants to match prices at local malls, a year-long trial program is underway allowing prices to be hiked up by as much as 10 percent. “We have taken steps in recent years to lower costs for airlines to operate here and recognized that food and retail vendors also were struggling,” says airport spokesperson Patrick Hogan, “Our fear was that if we did not allow some pricing flexibility, travelers would begin to see a decline in service or product quality as vendors cut costs to make ends meet.”

Dumb or not dumb?
At London’s Luton Airport, the security checkpoint is seen as a profit center. The airport sells small plastic bags to passengers who need to comply with restrictions for carrying liquids on an airplane. Luton travelers can also pay an extra fee to gain access to the express line at the security checkpoint.  And last week we learned that the airport is now charging drivers £1, or about $1.50, for the privilege of dropping off passengers at the terminal.

While he’s in favor of airports doing what they can to stay afloat, Forrester Research travel analyst Henry Hartevedlt calls Luton’s drop-off fee “absolutely ludicrous” and “the height of stupidity.”  He says fees like this will not only put the airport in a competitive disadvantage against nearby airports that don’t or won’t charge such fees, but that this move will be especially annoying to passengers at a time when people are so cost conscious.  “It would be different if the airport was looking to discourage wasteful activity and if they were applying this fee to gas guzzling cars to make a statement. That’s different. But this is just stupid. ... They’ve crossed the line of what’s reasonable.”

What would be reasonable?
OK, so maybe charging to drop someone off at the airport is ludicrous and stupid. I have five other ideas for airport fees I think might fly.

Gate limos
Not those motorized carts you flag down for a ride with a dozen other passengers to a far-off gate. I envision a private ride in a Smart-car-sized vehicle or a pedal-powered, rickshaw-like contraption. Of course, there’d be a stop for a Mai Tai or a cappuccino along the way.

Premium gate seating
You can’t stay cocooned in that airline lounge forever. So how about a special pay-to-use area at the gate with power plugs, complimentary coffee, snacks, and upgraded seating?

Security Checkpoint Concierge (SCC)
For a small fee, the SCC would pre-screen you and help you get unbundled and prepped to pass through the security checkpoint. The SCC could also store or mail home any prohibited items you may have inadvertently packed in your carry-on.

Bathroom attendants
Pay-toilets may not go over very well, but how about restroom attendants who receive a fee for watching your bags while you’re in the stall?

After all that rushing around to get everyone packed, out the door, and to the airport, wouldn’t it be nice to have a few moments to yourself to wander through the shops or enjoy a glass of wine at that airport wine bar?

What do you think? Would you pay an extra fee at the airport for any of these services? Or perhaps have a better idea for a way for airports to earn extra fees? Join the discussion or send in a comment in the box below.

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for