April 22, 2010 -- Spirit Airlines -- the folks who are about to start charging for carry-on bags -- now have a new change for passengers: seats that don't recline.
And we're not talking about just those exit row seats where reclining could slow egress. Spirit is stopping everybody's ability to lean back and enjoy the flight.
So why do this? To squeeze in more paying passengers on each flight, of course.
The Florida-based airline is putting a nice spin on this, calling the new seats "pre-reclined" seats. But in reality, they are just locked in the upright position. Since the seats don't move, they have fewer moving parts; they therefore weigh less and save the airline expensive fuel costs.
The first new Airbus 320 with the new upright seats went into service March 14, flying between Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Washington, D.C. The second plane started flying this week, between Fort Lauderdale and New York's LaGuardia airport. Two more similar aircraft start flying this summer.
Allegiant Airlines, a small leisure airline, also has seats that don't recline on 34 of its 47 aircraft. However, Allegiant offers a seat pitch -- the space in between your seat and the one in front of you -- of 30 inches. Spirit's seat pitch is one of the smallest in the industry at 28 inches. Air France also has seats that don't recline on some of its short-haul flights. But in those cases, the airline gives a generous 32 inches of seat pitch.
Earlier this month, Spirit became the first airline to ask the flying public to pay for its carry-on bags. Starting Aug. 1, any carry-on item placed in an overhead bin will cost passengers $30. Members of the airline's fare club, who pay $39.95 a year for discounts, will pay $20.
Passengers who don't pay the $30 fee in advance -- either online or at the ticket counter -- will get whacked with a $45 fee at the gate just for bringing their carry-on bag on the plane.
The move was met with outrage from the public, media and even some politicians, who proposed legislation to prevent such fees.
Five airlines -- American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, United Airlines and US Airways -- have since pledged not to follow Spirit's move and charge for carry-on bags.
Spirit's Carry-On Bag Policy
But apparently passengers haven't minded. Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said bookings for post Aug. 1 flights have increased 50 percent. He said fliers understand that such fees help keep overall ticket prices low. Critics, however, say that passengers don't always understand all the add-on fees when booking a flight, and simply choose the cheapest base fare even if it will mean a higher out-of-pocket expense in the end.
Spirit and most other major airlines already charge passengers for each checked bag, but this new surcharge is the latest -- and the most radical -- example of airlines' charging passengers extra money by "unbundling" fees that were previously included in the price of a ticket.
The new $30 carry-on fee is actually more expensive than Spirit's $25 fee for checked luggage, signaling that the airline is trying to get as many bags out of the cabin as possible.
Since airlines started charging for checked bags two to three years ago, passengers have tried to cram more and more bags into the cabin to avoid the fees.
There is now often a mad dash to be the first on a plane. Overhead bins fill up before all the passengers have boarded, and the remaining bags must be checked at the gate. That delays flights, and costs the airlines money. Flight attendants have also reported cuts, bruises, sprains and strains as a result of handling all the additional items in the overhead bins.
Spirit has been an innovator in finding new ways to charge passengers for items. (Well, right behind Ireland's Ryanair, which wanted to charge passengers to use the bathrooms.) Spirit charges passengers for advanced seat assignments. While some airlines have started doing that for window, aisle or extra-legroom seats, Spirit charges for any seat, including the dreaded middle seat.