Air Pain: Frustrating Fees

Airlines are now charging extra for everything — even that once-free soda.

July 29, 2008 — -- Delta just became the latest airline to try and dig a little bit deeper into fliers' pockets.

The airline this afternoon announced that it will double its fee for the second checked bag, to $50. Just a few months ago, Delta instituted a fee of $25 to check that second bag. The first checked back will remain free … for now.

American, United and US Airways already charge a $15 fee for the first bag checked, plus extra for that second bag.

"As fuel costs remain at record levels, Delta believes revising the fee structure for excess bags and specialty items is essential to generate the necessary revenues to offset record fuel costs while continuing to offer these services to customers," the airline said in a statement.

American travelers flying away on vacation this year will need to pack more than just their bathing suits and sunscreen. They'll need a lot of extra cash.

Delta's announcement is just the latest in a recent flood of new fees and surcharges.

As fuel costs soar, airlines have been looking to squeeze every extra dollar they can out of travelers. Fares are up dramatically, and so are fuel surcharges. And now the carriers are adding all sorts of new fees for services that were once free.

Travelers can expect to pay a whole host of new fees beginning the second they arrive at the airport.

Want to check your bags? How about a nice cold soda in mid-flight? Maybe a little extra leg room or even a seat assignment?

Cha-ching. Cha-ching. Cha-ching. Cha-ching.

"These fees will be annoying at first," said Ray Niedl, an airline analyst for Calyon Securities. "But passengers will adjust because of the need for air travel."

Despite the frustration passengers feel over the increasing air travel costs, the prices do not meet the actual cost of airline operations.

"The consumer has been on a multi-year party here with airfares, because they have been well below airline cost," said airline analyst Robert Mann. "Prices are lower than they need to be. They need to be [raised] by about 20 percent."

The latest moves came this week, when United and US Airways announced they would match a $15 fee charged by American Airlines to check your first bag. That fee comes in addition to the $25 that airlines recently started charging to check a second bag.

US Airways also announced it would charge coach passengers $2 for sodas and fruit juices on domestic flights, and raise the $5 charge for alcoholic drinks to $7.

OK, so those are "extra services," but what about charging for the seat?

On May 30, discount airline Spirit started charging passengers just to reserve a seat assignment in advance. It now costs passengers $15 for an exit row seat on Spirit, $10 for an aisle or a window and $5 for that dreaded middle seat. And that is one-way.

JetBlue also charges passengers more for specific requests. On April 1, JetBlue began charging $10 and more for additional leg room. Travelers who pay the price will receive four more inches of leg room in the A320 fleet. The longer the flight, the more you'll pay for the perk. There are six rows with the extra legroom on JetBlue planes.

Saving money can start at home when you pack. And don't think squeezing everything into one bag will save money.

Northwest Airlines doesn't — yet — charge for that first checked back. But it has joined the other airlines in charging passengers $25 each way for a second checked bag. Like the other airlines, it has also increased other baggage fees. People who used to pay $80 for three or more checked bags will now pay $100. The price for a heavy bag that weighs more than 50 pounds used to be $25. Now it's $50.

It's enough to make your head spin.

These fees are all on top of some fees imposed post-9/11, which include buying food on domestic flights. (Continental remains the one major airline to still offer such an amenity.)

The airlines have also raised other existing fees, such as the charge to change flights and the fees to book tickets over the phone with a live person instead of over the Internet.

The high ticket costs and fees might drive away some leisure and budget-conscious travelers.

Even Mann, who makes his living off the airlines, recently chose an alternative.

"I had to travel to meet a client on short notice last week," he said. "The New York to Baltimore flight cost $850 round trip, so I took an Amtrak train," which Mann said was about $600 cheaper.

"But unfortunately, that alternative doesn't exist all around the country."