Spirit Airlines' Next Fee? Talking to a Human

Expect more fees but CEO rules out charge to use the bathroom.

ByScott Mayerowitz
August 02, 2010, 2:19 PM

Aug. 3, 2010— -- Just when you thought airlines couldn't get any stingier, the CEO of Spirit Airlines said he is considering a new fee to talk with a human at the airport.

Yes, the airline that just started charging for carry-on bags might someday add a fee for getting some help from one of its employees, Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza told ABC News.

Baldanza said passengers won't see this fee "in the very near term." Or at least not until the airline improves its airport technology.

"When talking to a human being becomes an option, rather than a necessity, then we're willing to charge for it -- as we do with the call center -- but we're not at that position in the airports today," Baldanza said. "It's not that we don't think it's not a good idea at some point."

Most major airlines, including Spirit, already charge $5 to $25 to make reservations over the phone but no U.S. airline charges passengers to interact with its ticket and gate agents. European discount airline Ryanair -- often seen as a model for Spirit -- does force all its passengers to check in online. Those who don't are charged up to $60 to have their boarding passes printed at the airport.

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"Nothing surprises me anymore and passengers should feel the same," said John DiScala, a blogger known as Johnny Jet. "The airlines have been trying to find ways to scheme passengers for a while now and they are willing to try anything. The only way to fight it is to fly another airline."

Spirit Airline's Latest Fee

Baldanza said Spirit is working on airport kiosks that will allow customers to change tickets, check in for international flights, check their bags and move their seat assignments.

"When there's a way for customers to do it themselves electronically, at that point, we could consider charging a few dollars to interact with a human," he said. "But if the only way we can do the transaction for you is to talk to a human, we're not going to charge you for that."

Banks briefly experimented with this concept in the late 1990s, charging $1 to $3 to cash a check or make a deposit with a teller instead of the ATM. Customers, especially older ones who expected personal service, revolted and most of the fees disappeared.

But with airlines, passengers are starting to grow accustomed to an every-growing list of fees, analysts say.

"Airlines are already charging up to $25 to interact with a human to reserve a ticket over the phone -- it doesn't take much of a leap for them to extend `human interaction fees' at the airport -- especially as the Internet and kiosks have taken over the bulk of the check-in interactions and travelers pack lighter to avoid baggage fees," said Rick Seaney, CEO of airfare-search site FareCompare.com and an ABCNews.com columnist.

As technology improves, so do the number of things airlines are letting passengers do on their own. Online check-in is fast becoming the norm and many airlines are now allowing passengers to download a paperless boarding pass to their BlackBerrys or iPhones.

Continental Airlines is experimenting with a self-boarding process where passengers scan their boarding passes at a subway-like turnstile.

"The whole industry is going self-service," said Robert Mann, an airline consultant and president of R.W. Mann & Co. "The fact that Spirit might be the one to try to essentially eliminate customer contact, or at least customer contact with a human being, is not surprising. They are among the most-aggressive in this area."

Charging for Airplane Bathrooms

Spirit already charges more fees than most airlines. Assigned seats will cost passengers $8 to $20 extra, and that includes the dreaded middle seat. Coke, Sprite or water run an extra $3. The airline's philosophy is to keep its base fares low and then let passengers decide which added services they want to pay for.

But there is only so far that Spirit's CEO said he is willing to go. While Ryanair has talked about charging to use the bathroom mid-flight, Baldanza ruled out such a fee on his airline.

Nor would he consider selling standing-room only, or bar-stool like spaces on a flight, as Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary has boldly proposed.

"We would not consider charging for bathrooms," Baldanza told ABC News. "We are not seriously and I don't believe Ryanair is seriously looking at standing up on planes. There are plenty of federal regulators here and in Europe who would have plenty to say about standing up."

Baldanza said he's not morally opposed to charging for bathrooms but takes the approach that it's essential to taking the trip, it's included in your base fare. Only if something is an optional service does Baldanza believe it's reasonable to charge an extra fee.

"We just don't think of bathrooms as being an option thing," he said. "When you have to go, you have to go."

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