Can Travelers Learn to Love Airline Fees?

The airline industry calls them ancillary revenues.

The traveling public calls them nuisance fees.

The industry depends on them.

Travelers loathe them.

Airlines argue it's a legitimate way to price their services.

Consumers grumble about pricing "surprises."

By whatever name, and to whatever end, airline fees have become a fact of travel life.

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Packing bags

Big Business, Nasty Business

In 2009 alone, airlines generated $7.8 billion from ancillary fees, largely from checked bags. That's a 42 percent increase over the previous year. And while that growth rate is unsustainable over the long term, no one expects the industry to throttle back on its newfound reliance on fee revenues.

As big and entrenched as the business of fees has become, the pushback from consumers, the media, legislators and consumer groups may be bigger still.

But that hasn't stopped the negative feedback.

In a report released last month, Consumer Reports found that the top two traveler gripes were both fee-related -- luggage charges and added airline ticket fees.

So incensed was he by Spirit's "outrageous" $45 fee for carry-on bags that New York Sen.Charles Schumer personally secured commitments from five of the largest U.S. airlines to foreswear such a fee, and vowed to petition 21 other carriers to do the same.

And the newly proposed DOT passenger protection rules take direct aim at the airlines' fees, mandating that advertised ticket prices reflect any and all surcharges, and that all charged fees be itemized.

What's So Unfair About Fairness?

All of these people and organizations -- Consumer Reports, Chuck Schumer, the current incarnation of the DOT -- have my sympathy and respect. Indeed, I've taken more than a few swings myself at the airlines for their fee frenzy.

But there's an element of hypocrisy in the naysaying, mine included.

Underlying a-la-carte pricing is a principle that most right-thinking consumers would endorse: You get what you pay for. Flip that and it becomes: You pay for what you get.

With America's deep Puritan roots, that's practically written into our collective DNA.

And yet, when airlines began piling on the fees for anything that could be disentangled from the core service and tagged with a separate price, we bristled. "Nickel and diming," we snarled.

Is the outrage justified, or are we just a bunch of hypocritical whiners who can't come to grips with the inevitable manifestation of an inconvenient truth?

Why, in other words, are we so outraged by something that seems so sensible?

Change Is Hard

Psychologically, the recent explosion of airline fees has been a double whammy, exposing flyers to two powerful emotional triggers: change and loss.

Not only are we being charged more, but we're getting less. No meals. No pillows. No blankets.

And we're being asked to endure these insults during a period when airlines are flying their jets fuller than ever, adding physical discomfort to the list of travelers' woes.

Amenities, service, comfort -- all downgraded. Grouchy? You bet.

To the extent that fees allow the airlines to advertise artificially low ticket prices, the a-la-carte pricing scheme is fundamentally rooted in dishonesty and deception.

It may fall short of bait-and-switch for legal purposes, but that's what it feels like.

Fees and the Real Story

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