Airline Fees: Six Ways They Say 'Gotcha'

Hidden fees, aircraft changes and partner airlines confuse many passengers.

March 30, 2010, 8:07 AM

July 14, 2010 — -- Ever go to the airport and get a nasty surprise? Or maybe you get these "gotchas" online.

It happened to Stephanie Bowen of Washington, D.C., recently, while she was arranging a visit for her teenage niece who lives in San Diego.

Since her niece had never flown solo before, the family opted to pay American Airlines' unaccompanied minor fee -- a fee they somewhat naively believed would cost perhaps $25. The shock: It was four times that much, each way. "Five dollars for a blanket is one thing," Bowen said, "but 100 bucks to help a kid walk through the terminal? That just seems rude."

Actually, a blanket is $7 on JetBlue and US Airways. As for the unaccompanied minor fee, let's be totally clear: It's $200 per roundtrip flight, and that's standard on airlines like Continental, Delta, Spirit and US Airways (United gives you a break by only charging "only" $99 each-way, and yes, the sarcasm font is on).

Now, was this fee truly hidden -- a bonafide "gotcha"? No. It's there on the website if you search for it. But a lot of people don't find these fees or other "surprises," or don't find them easily or bother to look. The result: a nasty little shock.

Maybe you've been electrified yourself. Here are six of my least favorite "gotchas."

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No. 1: The Unexpected Fee

These are unexpected or "hidden fees" that are the bane of leisure travelers, especially for those who don't fly often -- like the previously mentioned blanket fee (upside: you get to keep the blanket, and it comes with a little pillow).

However, think twice before you pick up the phone to make a reservation: Most airlines will charge you for that convenience, anywhere from $10 (Allegiant) to $35 (for international reservations with US Airways).

Of course, if you have to use the phone because you're "online phobic," you may never know about this fee because where else are you going to find it except online?

One more unexpected fee, and technically it's really a targeted airfare hike: the "peak travel day" surcharge. Airlines have been adding this since last November (when it was called a "holiday" surcharge), and you'll find airline surcharges of varying prices every day through Aug. 22.

No. 2: The Total Airline Ticket Cost

I know you've seen this: An airfare is advertised at a great price, and so you decide to buy. But when you get to the end of the transaction, you find yourself asking, "What the heck happened to my bargain?"

The answer, often, is taxes, fees and fuel surcharges. On flights to Europe, for example, the average fuel surcharge is $230 and taxes are an average of $125, so you spend about $355 before you even purchase the ticket.

Now, airlines and others don't exactly hide these extra costs, but they often appear in small print. Since 1984, the government has required all airfare advertisers to reveal the full fare, but in practice, certain government-imposed charges have long been allowed to be listed separately from the total price.

However, changes may be coming: The Department of Transportation is considering going back to the original intent of the airfare rule, which states that any advertisement that "is not the total price to be paid by the consumer [is] an unfair and deceptive practice."

I'm all for transparency: On my airfare site (and others), you get the total price of your ticket from the get-go. I wish everyone did this; it sure would save a lot of frustrating sessions in front of the computer.

No. 3: The Surprise Airline

One of my employees has a child who recently flew to Prague for a summer study abroad program. The self-described "paranoid mom" talked to a Delta customer service rep before the flight to clear up a few details, such as whether the flights -- from Los Angeles to Atlanta and Atlanta to Prague -- were all on Delta. She was assured these were Delta planes, with Delta crews.

Later, her kid told her the flight from Atlanta was on Czech Airways.

All the flights landed safely, which was the main thing, but the mother was miffed at the presumably unintentional misinformation. However, flying partner airlines is a fact of life these days, particularly in the U.S., where more than 50 percent of domestic flights are on regional airlines.

Almost always there's some kind of asterisk on your ticket or a "click for flight details" section that will explain what airline you'll actually be flying on, be it code-share partner or the carrier you've actually booked your reservation with, but such things are easy to overlook.

Does it make any of you feel as if you're being taken for a ride? I wish airlines would be a little clearer about this, though I'm sure they'll say (with some justification) that "we are clear." Maybe so, but for some reason, not everyone's getting the message.

No. 4: The Surprise Aircraft, Schedule Change or Both

You want that cushy, special seat and you're willing to pay for it. Then the bad news: They've switched aircraft on you, and your cushy seat is no longer available. Sure, you'll get your money back -- eventually -- but that long-haul flight to China or wherever just got a lot less comfortable.

Not much you can do. Airlines note (in the fine print, of course) that the offer is "subject to change without notice." It would, however, be nice to get a heads-up before boarding.

Unfortunately, airlines switching aircraft isn't the only problem; it's worse when they switch schedules. Airlines have been trimming flights like crazy the past few years, and in some cases that means your nonstop just turned into a connecting flight, even though you probably paid a premium for a direct flight.

But when they do switch aircraft, watch out -- all your bin space may disappear. I was on a regional carrier just last week where there was only enough overhead storage for a lunch pail (if that). So there I am, waiting at the baggage carousel, which is why I use a carry-on -- so I don't have to. Well, sometimes it works …

No. 5: The Ticket Price Gap

This one's ugly: You're sitting on a flight, content with the thought that you paid the going rate for your ticket, maybe $400, and then you discover your seatmate paid $200. What the …?

This has to do with the mystical and mystifying ways of airline ticket pricing, which I find fascinating. Bottom line: The airlines want to get the most money for every single ticket that they can, and what you will pay depends on how badly you (and others) want a particular flight.

Moral of this story: Know something about supply-and-demand, and maybe you should avoid talking ticket prices with your seatmate.

No. 6: The Kiddie Escort Fees

Yes, we're back full circle now, but I think the real shock isn't so much the price of that $200 unaccompanied minor fee, it's what you get for it: not a lot.

Let me add, no one should expect the airlines to be babysitters, and if that's what your child needs, he or she is better off staying put (or having a relative fly with him or her).

That's because the unaccompanied minor fee provides your child with an escort to and from the gates (and in some cases, onto the plane) and that's about it. No one sits with them or gives them special notice, beyond that of kindly flight attendants, when they can spare a moment from all their other duties. In other words, don't count on special attention.

Oh, and sometimes the fee won't even get a child where he's supposed to be going. It's rare, but it happens: Last month, for instance, Delta sent a 9-year-old-boy heading to Boston to Cleveland, while sending a 9-year-old-girl heading to Cleveland to Boston. Each eventually got to the correct destinations, but I have no doubt their parents suffered all kinds of shock as this played out.

On the bright side, you can't say today's air travel scene is boring.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website,, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.

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