Choose Your Own Airline Price

Red states ready. Blue states steady. All states vote.

No, I'm not talking about this year's dramatic presidential race. I'm talking about the thrill of voting to elect your final airline ticket price. Voting for a ticket price? Yes, indeed.

Consider what's happening with American Airlines. According to an airline representative, there are plans afoot to have you "vote" every time you fly with American. Yes, starting next year, American execs expect to continue -- in their words, keep going "full-steam ahead" -- with efforts to "unbundle" amenities, otherwise known as pesky airline fees.

Unbundle -- I love that word. But what does it mean?

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It means instead of getting a bundle of services for one flat rate -- say, your airfare, plus a soft drink and a snack, as well as a blanket and maybe some headphones -- you will now pay to play.

Services or amenities will be unbundled, meaning you pay one cost for your base airfare and fuel surcharge and separate costs for everything else (when you buy your ticket online or optionally at the airport/aircraft).

So that would mean your airfare plus $2 for that Diet Coke (as US Airways is doing), maybe $7 for that blanket and pillow combo (as JetBlue is doing) and, of course, another fee for checking a bag (as pioneered by American).

Some of these fees seem acceptable to a lot of us. Many will elect to pay for Internet services, and why not? We already pay for that at many hotels, home and at the office. But to pay extra for a nonmiddle seat, no matter how early you purchase your ticket? That seems a bit much. I mean, a seat is kind of the whole point of your airfare, isn't it? But this is already a reality on a number of airlines.

OK, here's a new one: paying for frequent flier miles. Sound crazy? Don't tell Air Canada, because, in a limited sense, that's what it is doing. Now, before Air Canada jumps all over me, understand that these are not the frequent flier miles you get for the length of your flight; these are just the bonus miles you get for booking the flight. If you don't accept these booking flight miles, you get $3 off the price of your airfare.

But, however you characterize it, all the vote-for-your-amenity campaigns by all the airlines sound like election year stunts to me. And, no offense to my Canadian friends, I'm not even sure many Hockey Moms among us would approve.

What's happening, I think, is that the executive branch (all the airlines) is trying to broaden its powers and you, the constituents (read: passengers), don't have a vote on that. But you have a vote when it comes to electing your amenities. The airlines spin this as a good thing: Why, you only pay for what you use. And Air Canada, which came out of bankruptcy in 2004 and pioneered the accelerated unbundling to keep up with lower cost competitor WestJet, likes the word "transparency." What could be better than transparency?

Hmm. I think someone's putting lipstick on that infamous pig.

For one thing, this elect-your-amenity mentality hurts consumers, because it makes it more and more difficult to compare airfare prices among airlines.

Say, for example, you want to fly from Point A to Point B. And three airlines share that route, but two of the carriers have bag fees, and the other has a "premium seat" fee, and one of the bag-fee airlines has a drink fee, and … you see where I'm going. Better get your calculator out.

And talk about transparency: The airlines are trying to dilute the comparison power of the Internet, which, to their chagrin, has turned airline tickets into a commodity. Unbundling means passengers are being asked to compare apples to -- well, not even to oranges. It's more like apples to asparagus. It will be painful and it won't be pretty.

Why are the airlines doing this? You know the answer. I mean, in this election year, we've all heard the phrase "money is the mother's milk of politics," and the cash generated by fees and amenities is certainly keeping the legacy network airlines alive. Oh, how the money rolls in.

Thanks to unbundling, United Airlines expects to bring in an additional $700 million a year, while Northwest figures it'll rake in as much as $200 million a year on baggage fees alone.

Some have said, there's no going back, that we'll never return to the days of an all-inclusive fee. Probably true, for the cheap fares, but a representative for American says all-inclusive fares will likely be available for premium customers. In other words, those who want it all and are willing to pay for it will get it, with a single price tag.

The rest of us will have to content ourselves with voting for what we want, electing our specific amenities. So, get used to it. After all, it is an election year. It is also, according to the Chinese calendar, the year of the rat. Make of that what you will.

Well, I have to run: I have a flight to book. In other words: I'm off to the polls.

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 offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.