July 5, 2008

Bite Size Bad News 8--Airline Surcharges

bloglines del.icio.us Digg facebook Google Ma.Gnolia Newsvine Technorati socializer StumbleUpon Yahoo

The flailing US airline industry continues to tack on charges to the price of a ticket, as soaring jet fuel costs hammer bottom lines already shakier than the crate the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.

The pre-$140-a-barrel-oil adjustments were mostly of two types:

Fuel surcharges added directly to the cost of a ticket--$65 these days.

Cost cutting, like how free in-flight meals dwindled to li’l bags of peanuts and then tiny ones of pretzels, which have evaporated entirely on some flights, replaced by the $8 airline-food sandwich.

But in the last month or so we’ve seen the announcement of:
  • $15 fees to check a bag, $30 for a second bag. Another $2 each if you want to check in at the curb. This insures super-crowded overhead bins.
  • A charge to select your seat--$15 for aisle, $10 for window, $5 for middle. So let them put you wherever, you say? That’s because you aren’t traveling with a spouse and kid. If you are, that’s another 30 smackers right there. (Me, I’ve always gone for window in a “Serve The People’ gesture—it means there’s at least a 50% chance that when I fall asleep I won’t start listing gently to the other side and drooling on the shoulder of the party next to me.)
  • $5 to watch a movie. On a tiny seatback screen. Oh, yeah, if you want to actually hear what’s going on, add on a $3 headphone upgrade.
  • $2 for a smallish bottle of water. Of course, you can’t bring water from home. Well, you can, but they’ll make you throw it out at the bag scan, and if you make a big fuss about it, you’re asking for a session with the national security proctologist. Needless to say, you can opt to buy a somewhat larger but more expensive bottle from the pricey shops inside the concourse.
  • And when you cash in your frequent flier miles for the free ticket they promised you? Well, their idea of “free” involves you forking over $50 cash.
What next?

Let’s start with the short term—ya know those little blankets and pillows everybody uses on red-eyes? They are gonna be rebranded as “comfort packs” this fall and they will set you back probably $3-5. Ya know what else? It's not going to stop them hemorrhaging money.

Medium term? The airlines are gonna figure out how much these nasty little surcharges piss people off and start pricing flights to reflect the actual cost to the traveler, i.e. an awful lot. Meanwhile some airlines will file bankruptcy and some will follow Pan Am into the big hanger in the sky.

Long term? As prices rise and the economy sinks, airlines—the ones that don’t just give up the ghost--will cut schedules and employees and ditch old equipment to try a find a sweet spot. Air travel will go back toward being what it was in the 1950s and before, a luxury indulged in mainly by the well-to-do.

The rest of us will travel less and have to rely more on trains and buses when we do—or make a sign and stick out our thumb!

No comments: