Will Airlines 'Un-ring' the Fee Bell?

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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.

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