Will Airlines 'Un-ring' the Fee Bell?

They say bad news comes in threes. For airlines, their employees and us passengers, the bad news seems to be coming in multiples of three.

Each scrap of bad news starts to take on a life of its own, feeding on itself in a complex chain reaction. It starts when an airline receives its un-hedged ExxonMobil credit card bill and ends with the latest frustrating fee of the week.

Along the way, beleaguered airline employees absorb more "furloughs," small cities lose air service, mid-size cities absorb higher ticket prices, frequent flyers pay for "free" tickets and our government stalemates while squabbling over whose fault it is.

Swirling around the eye of this hurricane of dire oil pricing news has been the inability of legacy airlines to recoup their newly bloated fuel bills solely through hiking airline ticket prices.

You see, we passengers aren't cargo … yet. Fedex and UPS simply tack on an additional charge based on the current price of fuel, but since their packages leave and arrive on time (with a money-back guarantee), we can grin (sort of) and bear that, just as we do at the pump.

The same cannot be said for airlines. Their product — getting passengers (with bags) from A to B — has deteriorated over the years as hundreds of thousands of new passengers were introduced to the wonders of air travel.

The reasons behind the deterioration of the air travel "product" are complex and can be laid at the feet of all in the air travel food chain: airline management and their employees, our government and, yes, even us, the passengers. But the point is not how we got here, but how we extricate ourselves from this mess.

Fix Fuel

I think it is pretty safe to assume that the American public will soon start holding policymakers' feet to the wood-burning fire and maybe — at least by late next year — fuel prices will have stabilized to something more reasonable (or, perhaps something we've simply gotten used to and can live with).

Certainly airlines are twisting the arms of politicians over the issue of fuel prices — and they're asking (well, begging) us to work them over, too. Many of you probably received what a colleague's mother called "a spam e-mail" from airline CEOs last week, which invited us to bombard our congressional representatives with more e-mail, asking them to curtail oil speculation.

Spam or not — the notable thing about this plea wasn't the gravity of the message per se, but the mere fact that airlines actually joined forces with 12 airline CEO signatories. In the past, getting more than two airlines to agree on anything was about as likely as free in-flight meals making a comeback in coach.

Fix Traffic

I find it particularly ironic that Apple can put out two generations of iPhones in one year (and get most of us to fork out twice — gladly) and we still can't get the equivalent of the contents of an iPhone in the cockpit of every aircraft before the year 2020. According to my recent conversation with the acting head of the FAA, this and a few more "tweaks" could basically end most of the air traffic control problems we have in the United States — including weather.

By the end of this year airlines will have ditched dozens of old fuel-guzzling aircraft and deeply cut back flights — in fact by the end of this year we will be back to approximately 1998 levels of seats flown in the United States — effectively losing a decade of growth in the domestic aviation industry (yes, a decade). This twist of fate provides a perfect time to both fund and accelerate the implementation of a next-generation air traffic control system.

And, if only we could just get Steve Jobs over at the FAA for a few years …

The vehicle to fund this next generation technology plan — the FAA Reauthorization Bill — has been stumbling through Congress and as you might imagine, airlines in their typical blue-suit/red-tie fashion have decided to roll out a new mascot for their version of funding the FAA and air traffic improvements — a mascot named Edna.

This bee-hived 1950s caricature is making the radio (and presumably, video) circuit with her requirements for the FAA reauthorization bill — you see, before we fund this "swell" new version of the FAA, we must make sure the bill passes the "Edna Test" (cockpit GPS, higher fees on corporate/private jets, lower ticket taxes, and stopping those oil speculators).

Personally, if the airlines had to have a 1950s style mascot, I would have gone with Eddie Haskell of "Leave It to Beaver" fame.

Un-Ring the Bell

Fast Forward to late 2009:

Oil is at $70 a barrel

Steve Jobs is running the FAA "next-gen" project

Passengers are primed and ready to gain back the 10 years of lost growth and more

Now all airlines have to do is dump the dozens of fees they started piling on because of $130+ a barrel oil — but, will airlines step up and "un-ring" the fuel/fee bell and roll back those pesky fees?

Well — I can dream, can't I?

If they don't, that would be a shame — unless planes started departing and arriving on time and the baggage we pay a fee for actually winds up where it's supposed to be!

Airlines were able to unite behind "Edna" and those spam-like e-mails — how about banding together and getting the essential core services of air travel up to speed?

Now there's an idea we can all unite on.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.