Is a $9 Flight Too Good to Be True?

Airline insanity: when the fees are more expensive than the ticket.

ByColumn by RICK SEANEY <br/> CEO
November 18, 2008, 12:10 PM

June 3, 2009 &#151; -- How does a $9 flight sound to you? Sounds good to me, too -- and starting July 13 -- when JetAmerica takes off, every one of its flights will have nine seats for $9.

Except hang on a sec. That's $9 for the one-way airfare; then there are all those other standard one-way fees, including the 9/11 security charge for $2.50; the federal excise segment tax for $3.60; and, the airport fee of $4.50. No problem.

But that's not all. JetAmerica will also be charging a $5 each-way "convenience" fee to book the tickets online -- which personally, I don't find very convenient (and I feel the same way about the one-time $10 Call Center Fee, if you book by phone). Call me crazy, but I think "free" is a whole lot more convenient.

What else? Well, there's the now obligatory $10 per bag fee to check luggage (actually not too bad); but if I want to reserve a seat -- and not just a special seat, mind you, I mean any seat -- I'll pay another $10. Add the cost of a soda and a snack and suddenly the fees have dwarfed my bargain airfare. I'm paying more than four times the cost of the ticket in fees alone.

Are you a little tired of what seems to be the ol' bait and switch? Well get used to it.

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Fees are taking over, and for good reason: bag fees alone brought in more than $1 billion in 2008, and experts say that could rise to $3.5 billion this year. And it couldn't have come at a better time, what with business travel down so sharply over the past six months.

What JetAmerica is doing is actually following in the footsteps of several carriers including JetAmerica founder John Weikle's earlier airline, the now-defunct Columbus-based Skybus (though to be fair, he wasn't running it when it went out of business last year). But maybe the airline JetAmerica is really mimicking is a foreign carrier: Ireland's Ryanair.

Has Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary ever meet a fee he didn't love? The latest: a $15 charge to print out your boarding pass in your own home or office. And if you don't print it out -- or forget to bring it to the airport with you -- you'll be charged another $60 as a "boarding pass reissue fee."

O'Leary makes no apologies whatsoever. One of his always memorable quotes is, "I'm probably just an obnoxious little bollocks. Who cares? The purpose is not to be loved. The purpose is to have the passengers on board."

Sounds like a lesson that Miramar-based Spirit Airlines has taken to heart. Did you catch Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza on "Nightline" recently? He too seems immune to the sometimes nasty cracks about his airline's service or lack of same. I mean, this is the airline that now charges a "passenger usage fee" of $9.80 roundtrip. I guess by "usage" they mean "the privilege of boarding the aircraft and going for a ride."

What these airlines are really doing, it seems to me, is trying to be say, Amazon or Wal-Mart -- get the customer in the door with famously cheap fares, and then try to squeeze them for a few more bucks. Drives me crazy.

Alright, enough with my Scrooge impersonation -- I do get it -- that these are still very cheap flights, and if you don't mind paying a little more here and there, or an extra fee for this or that, you've often got yourself a remarkable bargain.

What does disturb me though, is the legacy carriers and their forays into multi-fee land.

I mean it's one thing for the discounters to do this -- after all, it's a matter of expectations -- which is not a bad thing. As Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told me not so long ago, "Our customers don't have low expectations, they have the right expectations." Though I should point out that this airline that advertises "Fees Don't Fly with Us" has some new chinks in its armor -- it added a new fee last week and raised another.

But we have different expectations when it comes to the legacy carriers like American, United, Delta and more -- so it's a little unsettling when they squeeze us over with bag fees and "premium seating" and the like -- things that used to be built into your ticket price.

Here's where I think the legacy carriers are playing with fire: they haven't re-branded themselves as "discount airlines" and yet they're moving closer and closer to that model -- but without the discount ticket prices (except for the occasional airfare wars). So let me ask you: what's the point in flying the legacy carriers?

I don't think loyalty to a mileage program is going to be enough to keep a lot of fliers from eventually jumping ship if this fee madness continues. Which begs the question: are we moving to a one-class airline system, composed entirely of discount airlines? It's starting to feel that way. Case in point -- the bag fees were introduced by legacy carriers when the price of oil started going crazy -- well, the crazy is over (for now) but we're still paying.

Maybe I'm just a not-so-old but still cranky flier when I ask, are we all going to be scrambling for those $9 airfares? Maybe a better question is: does anyone care about amenities at all anymore?

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.

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