Extra airline fees could mean better service! This is the FUTURE

airline feesSoon, airlines could make all their profits on the extra fees you pay. Seriously. Yesterday, the Department of Transportation revealed that airlines have had their most profitable year since it started tracking the data back in 2002. And, a good chunk of revenue came from baggage fees, reservation change fees and ancillary fees. In the third quarter alone, it was good for more than $2 billion. So, the foundation is in place. All the airlines need to do is build on it.

And, it looks like some are trying to do that.

According to MSNBC, US Airways President Scott Kirby said that baggage fees and ancillary fees could add up to 100 percent of the airlines profits this year. We’re not talking about some future development, here. This is now. We’ve been talking for a while about how airlines are coming to rely on these fees. Last year, it was an issue of surviving the recession; this year, it’s been about driving profits. Regardless of prevailing economic conditions, it’s clear these fees aren’t going anywhere. It would stand to reason, therefore, that they’d become a larger part of airlines’ profits over time.

But, 100 percent? How would that work? Let’s take a look.First, think about the trend in reduced amenities, putting aside the weird stuff you read about this morning. Food isn’t free, and you’re paying for bags and premium coach seating (think exit row and bulkhead). This lowers airline costs on an available seat mile basis.

Now, what does it mean to lower costs? Well, it provides the elbow room to compete more effectively on fares – translation: cheaper tickets. So, in theory at least, this puts more butts in seats. The lower cost, however, erodes profit per available seat mile, because there isn’t as much revenue assigned to it.

This is where the fees come in.

If all you buy is a seat, you score! You’ll have the chance to get it for less than you would have paid otherwise. If you’re the kind of person who goes to the movies and sneaks in your own snacks, you’re all set. But, the minute you need something else, you’re going to have to pay. This is where the airlines can make their profits. Essentially, getting you into a seat becomes a marketing opportunity for everything you sell. Going back to the movie theater example, it’s equivalent to the previews you see that implore you to go out to the lobby and grab some popcorn. And, they can pump up the prices on food, liquor, bag-checking and so on to make up what they’re effectively giving away on a break-even seat.

Of course, this is a bit oversimplified, but you get the idea. The future of airlines may be to turn a cheap seat into an opportunity to up-sell you on everything else. Frankly, it isn’t a bad idea. In addition to making tickets cheaper, the flight attendants will need to sell in order to help the airline turn a profit. Sales without service is usually a fool’s errand, so a shift in strategy of this sort will lead to better passenger treatment. Maybe we’ll actually be treated like customers!

All these extra fees may not be such a bad idea after all. The airlines don’t realize this, but if they make all their money on the amenities, they’ll actually have to deliver an enjoyable experience.

Let’s pay less to pay extra and be treated like human beings in the process.

[photo by Augapfel via Flickr]