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Flying Fees Are Here to Stay

Flying the friendly skies just got less friendly as airlines tack on more and more fees

When I start waxing sentimental about how I once loved to fly, my kids give me that look you give your grandfather when he runs that sob story about how he walked to school six miles each way every day, in all kinds of treacherous weather with no coat and brown paper bags tied to his feet for shoes, carrying 10 pounds of books and a stale butter sandwich because education meant that much to him.

My children just shake their heads when I tell them how I looked forward to seeing family members off on trips, how I’d stand at the big airport picture windows, with my face inches from the glass, thrilled to watch the planes take off and land. They couldn’t understand why I ever owned a prized Pan Am stewardess lunchbox or nursed a desire to actually become a flight attendant. They didn’t believe that passengers ever dressed up to fly, that you’d look forward to every trip like it was Christmas, or that flying itself was perceived as being glamorous, exciting, even luxurious.

Who can blame them? All they know of flying is the post-9/11 cattle-call of overwrought, under-served, barely fed, full-of-dread travelers who found out this week that the price they’re paying for the so-called privilege of flying is a whole lot higher than they thought.

According to the US Department of Transportation, the airline industry raked in a sky-high $5.7 billion in extra fees in 2010, which enabled the once bleeding industry to turn a profit for the first time in years. They socked us with these fees starting in 2008, as if we didn’t already have enough issues with snaking security lines, dumping an ocean’s worth of liquid that we were no longer allowed to put through scanners, and cramming ourselves sardine-like on to planes that routinely sat on runways for more than 30 minutes before take-off.

As airline amenities plummeted, their fees crept up slowly, often covertly, but with abandon. Today, if you book a ticket on the phone, it’s cha-ching to the tune of an extra $25 in some cases (versus about $7 on travel sites). Redeeming those precious frequent flier miles to save money on your next big vacation? Not for free! You’ll still pay in the form of fees or thousands more miles than your trip is actually worth. And whatever happens, pray you don’t have to change your ticket more than 24 hours after booking it. Change fees vary, but the standard has become $150 per change, per ticket.

Given how close seats are to each other these days, those exit rows are the next best thing to First Class. They’ve become premium real estate and airlines know it. But what’s it worth to you to be able to stretch your legs (or just cross them)? On some airlines, the exit row could cost you more than $100 extra! Others, like Spirit, assess a specific fee for every seat on the plane, with window seats costing the most. And yes, they’ll even charge you extra for that middle seat in the loud last row, right by the bathroom.

While all of these fees are a nuisance, and many are avoidable, the mother load of all fees is attached to baggage, which is why so many frequent fliers have mastered the art of packing a month’s worth of clothes, shoes, and toiletries (lots of 3-ounce bottles, I presume) into a regulation-size carry-on.

On most airlines, you’re going to dole out extra cash for every bag checked curbside, every pound over the airline’s limit, and every checked bag beyond your first. Fliers spent $3.4 billion on baggage fees alone last year! Delta made $952 million of it—and yet airlines still lost bags, destroyed them in handling, and took hours to get them from flights to baggage terminal conveyor belts. Come on! Is this fair? Of course not. But industry experts say these fees are going nowhere. They’re too lucrative; they’re saving a desperate industry, even if they’re killing us. So, what’s a frequent flier, or anyone who’s got to go where a bus, car, or train can’t take them, do?

If there’s a bit of good news, it’s that federal rules kick in this summer that require airlines to post fees clearly on websites, so you can shop around and manage your plans, and your luggage, accordingly. It’s worth noting that Southwest Airlines has been a lone hold-out in charging most of these fees, and they’ve still managed to keep their ticket prices relatively low.

Can we, who once loved to fly, hope that airline profits will help bring back a little of the pizzazz (or at least free pillows)? Nope. The glory days of commercial flight are gone. For a wistful glimpse of them, see the movie, Catch Me If You Can. Or, if you’re really good, I’ll let you see my Pan Am lunchbox.

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