Airlines have best quarter ever … thanks baggage fees!

Airlines have best quarter thanks to baggage feesEvery time you pay to check an extra bag you’re making someone’s life better. The latest data from the U.S. Department of Transportation reveals that the third quarter of 2010 was the most profitable for the U.S. airline industry since the department began keeping score in 2002. The industry’s operating profit margin hit 10.5 percent in aggregate. Low-cost carriers, as a class, had an operating profit margin of 11 percent, its best performance since hitting 11.2 percent in the third quarter of 2006.

How did the airline industry pull this off? Recovering economic conditions helped, of course, but so did the stuff that passengers have gotten comfortable complaining about. More than $900 million in third-quarter revenue came from baggage fees, with another $590 million from reservation change fees. Then, there was another $646 million in ancillary fees. It all adds up to more than $2 billion for a single quarter.

So, while we’re all complaining about these extra fees, it looks like many of us are paying them, too.Spirit picks up the highest percentage of its revenue from ancillary fees at 26.9 percent, up from 24.2 percent in the second quarter of 2010 and 20.6 percent in the third quarter of 2009. Allegiant was next at 9.7 percent. Delta and US Airways derived 7.7 percent of their revenues from ancillary fees, with Southwest at 6.7 percent.

Of course, the money isn’t just going into the pockets of airline employees and executives. The six network airlines spent 25 percent of their operating expenses in the third quarter on fuel. United Airlines spent the most on fuel among network carriers – 25.7 percent of total revenue – with Allegiant leading low-cost carriers at 44.1 percent.

Before you feel too sorry for airlines when it comes to fuel costs, remember those profits. Four network airlines had double-digit operating margins, along with four low-cost carriers.

[photo by Tracy O via Flickr]