Airline Fees Have Their Benefits

VIDEO: Learn which type of luggage are perfect for saving on costly baggage check fees.
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Hate those airline fees? Join the club. Yet we pay and pay. Last year, the airlines earned a nifty $5.7 billion -- yes, billion -- on checked-bag fees and those infuriating "itinerary change" fees alone.

(Finding that "billions" part hard to believe? Keep reading to see how a single flier can add nearly $1,000 in fees to the price of his ticket.)

For more travel news and insights, view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

What do you get for your fees? You get an airline that can still fly you from point A to point B; without fees, some carriers would go out of business just as Skybus, Aloha and others did in the past decade. Right now, the high price of oil is the big problem and, as American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith points out, "Recently costs have exceeded revenues."

Smith notes that fees are a general revenue source and pay for whatever is needed.

OK, then; do fees get us anything else besides non-bankrupt airlines, bags that are not guaranteed to arrive when you do, some pre-fab food, an extra few inches of seating space, or a dog that needs a hydrant ASAP? Yes. You might get a cool new plane.

The airlines have been on an aircraft spending spree of late. American Airlines is now reportedly looking to buy 250 new planes, which works out to about 40 percent of its fleet. Others doing some airplane shopping include Delta, Frontier, United/Continental and Southwest.

U.S. airline fleets are aging. According to a report issued by the Associated Press this spring, the average age of the planes in Delta's fleet is 16 years, while American and United are both 15 years; the average age of Southwest's fleet is close to 12, while Allegiant's is 21.5 years.

Remember that Southwest flight that had to make an emergency landing earlier this year because a hole ripped open in the fuselage? According to a recent media story, the National Transportation Safety Board probably won't have a final report on the incident until next year but preliminary findings indicated "fatigue cracks" and it has been noted by news organizations that the plane in question was 15 years old.

Passengers appreciate good planes; clean ones, anyway. Check out the 2011 J.D. Powers survey of airlines, in which the overall winner for low-cost carriers was JetBlue. It did well in many categories such as "aircraft experience," which noted whether interiors were sparkling or down-and-dirty. Of course, JetBlue has all those nice seat-back TVs on every plane, but they also have one of the youngest fleets (average age: 5.8 years, according to the AP).

Newer planes can pay off in other ways, too, such as a bigger bang for the jet-fuel buck, which, as previously noted, is a very big deal for the airlines. It's also a big deal for passengers because the cost is passed on to us in the form of higher ticket prices. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), new aircraft are 70 percent more fuel efficient than planes that were flying in the early 1970s, and 20 percent better than the planes in the air just 10 years ago.

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