The airline industry has an uneasy relationship with truth-telling. Ads routinely tout low fares that simply don't exist -- the advertised price, for example, is for a one-way ticket, but the fare rules require a round-trip purchase.
The chiefs of merger-hungry airlines regularly oversell the consumer benefits of industry consolidation.
And related to fees specifically, in an attempt to justify the imposition of surcharges for carry-on bags, Spirit chief Ben Baldanza went so far as to claim the new fees were actually intended to save travelers time and money.
The truth about fees won't be found in the airlines' ads or press releases, or in Ben Baldanza's pronouncements, but in their financial reports, where the economic impact of the fees is proudly, gleefully, trotted out for Wall Street analysts and investors.
The Slippery Surcharge Slope
Also contributing to consumers' unease with the current fee-for-all is the niggling sense that there's nothing the airlines won't do to separate travelers from their money.
How about a fee for not pouring hot coffee in my lap? An enterprising airline could call it a "temperature guarantee surcharge." Or a fee for preventing the pilot from coming to my home in the middle of the night and robbing me? A "home invasion exemption fee."
Crazy? Sure, but how much crazier than Spirit's fee for carry-on bags, or US Airways' for simply issuing a frequent flyer award ticket?
A Dummies Guide to Selling Airline Fees
While consumers are never likely to embrace fees any more than they do root canals, the airlines could do more to ease the transition to the new pricing reality.
The airlines, it should be remembered, did a masterful job of convincing travelers to book online rather than pick up the phone, deploying a combination of carrots (bonus miles) and sticks (fees for telephone bookings).
So, what can the airlines do in this case?
The word "sneaky" appears prominently and often in consumers' grumbling about fee-for-all pricing. And more substantively, adding injury to insult, consumers can't make meaningful price comparisons if they don't have ready access to all-inclusive prices from all airlines, whether it's on the carriers' own websites or on the site of an online travel agent.
Full fee disclosure is something the airlines should have done proactively, from the beginning. Soon, they may have no choice -- as mentioned above, the DOT has included language in its proposed passenger-protection legislation that would mandate up-front disclosure of all fees associated with a particular ticket price.
"Rush" fees for tickets issued within 21 days of departure?
Close-in booking fees are sometimes still called rush fees, a reference to times long past when airlines had to use courier services to get tickets into customers' hands when a booking was made too close to the departure date to allow for delivery by regular mail. The rush fee offset the airline's additional costs. But today, with the great majority of tickets being issued digitally, there are no paper tickets or FedEx fees to deliver them.
And airlines' Internet booking applications are no more "rushed" in generating a confirmation number for a flight that departs in 24 hours than for a flight departure 30 days out.
If the fee doesn't cover a cost to the airline, or deliver extra value to the consumer, it's just a gouge and should be cut.
An extra charge to use the plane's lavatory?