Airline fees continue, necessary evil

Yes, you’ve heard about this all year, and you’ll probably hear about it for a while to come. Airlines are still looking for ways to pull every dollar they can out of your wallets, but the reality is that they have no choice. Seven of the nine largest airlines in the United States had a rough time in August, making these measures more important than passengers might realize.

The second bag, according to an article in USA Today, remains the most popular fee target for airlines. Continental Airlines, US Airways and American Airlines recently announced that they are going to charge for this, and Hawaiian Airlines is going to charge passengers for the first checked bag on flights between islands beginning September 14, 2009.

I understand charging for checked luggage (the money has to come from somewhere), and I honestly don’t see charging for a second bag as a bad idea. Frankly, it can be pretty frustrating to stand in line behind someone who’s fumbling with more luggage than he or she can move along. The first bag? That’s a bit different. This fee could cause passengers to push the envelope with carry-ons, which is likely to trigger arguments with gate agents and flight attendants, tie up the boarding process and result in hefty doses of frustration for everyone else on the plane.

I’m more a fan of Southwest‘s new policy, which will put passengers at the front of the line – even ahead of frequent fliers and those paying premium fares – for a fee of $10 each way. Since the airline doesn’t assign seating, this small sum offers the chance to get the best seats on the plane. I’m not crazy about the notion that it comes at the expense of frequent flier comfort (alienating your best customers is rarely a good idea), but the price is low enough that these passengers would probably pay it anyway. For this perk, I’d definitely pay more than $10.

There’s money in extra fees, as we’ve discussed on Gadling in the past. Some analysts predict that these charges could be good for more than $2 billion a year for an industry that could definitely use it. The airlines need to be careful, though, as going to far could lead to disgruntled (and lost) customers.

Passengers, however, should be realistic. Fares are cheap. To make ends meet, airlines have been cutting flights and services, generally making the experience incredibly uncomfortable.

In fact, taking this approach to the extreme might be a good idea. Airlines could offer dirt-cheap prices for passengers who want nothing more than to get from one place to another. Then, if you want to enhance your experience – with a meal, cocktail or better seat – you can pay a little more. This à la carte approach would empower passengers to create their own experiences, ultimately improving customer service and airline responsiveness. To an extent, it’s already happening, but to make the strategy work, it would have to become part of a cohesive offer.

That said, airlines would have to be careful with their general cuts. Fewer flights, less legroom and degraded customer service affect everybody, and there’s no way to work improvements in based on price (with the exception of flying in business or first class, which involves a considerable price gap). Finding a middle ground could change both the airline industry and passenger perception of the flying experience.

On Southwest, the internet’s no longer free

Starting tomorrow, Southwest Airlines is going to start charging for internet access on four of its planes. The fees will range from $2 to $12, based on how long you’re in the sky and how you connect. For the past few months, access has been free, but the lure of additional revenue must have been hard to resist.

Yep, another extra fee to add to the list …

Both Delta Airlines and American Airlines are planning to add internet access to more than 300 planes each, but they’re still in the early stages. The fee to connect can reach $12.95, though less on shorter flights or when you use a handheld device instead of a laptop. I tested out Delta’s offer on a flight from New York to Atlanta and had great results. If you’re looking to recapture a few hours of your professional life, the price is well worth it.

For once, there’s a fee well worth paying.

March airline plunge softens in April

Passenger traffic is still falling. That’s not going to change for a while. But, the decline slowed in April, signaling that the prolonged sharp dips may be behind us. Some optimists even believe that the worst is over – though I maintain a healthy skepticism.

Note the metric being used: passenger traffic. There’s a lot of mileage between asses in seats and money in the bank. On a positive note, increased passenger traffic means that more people are spending money on travel. Of course, deep discounts are responsible in large part for the increasing traffic. The value of these passengers in dollar terms, therefore, is quite low.

United Airlines reported a traffic drop of 10.5 percent in April 2009 relative to the same month in 2008. Delta and American sustained smaller declines. Southwest, meanwhile, showed a 4.1 percent increase.

And, fares fell.

The average one-way domestic fare paid in the first quarter of 2008 was $213 – compared to $246 for full-year 2008.

For now, however, the airlines believe it’s better to sell seats at any price, especially if they have to put a plane in the air anyway.

NOT pre-boarding people with young ones saves time

In an article in the St. Petersburg Times, writer Bridget Hall Grumet tells about her experience waiting with her pre-toddler to pre-board, only to not pre-board after all. The unnamed airline had dropped the practice unbeknown to her. (She later mentions an American Airlines and United flight, but they are not the ones Grumet initially described.)

We’ve posted in the past about airlines who have stopped pre-boarding families with infants and small children. Southwest, American, Delta and United no longer have pre-boarding, although Grumet says that if you ask gate attendants with American and Delta, they may let you board early if you have a small child. Grumet personally found that to be true on an American flight.

Although Grumet misses the perk of boarding early with a kid because it makes settling in on a plane that much easier, she does understand the airlines’ latest practice. The idea behind not making allowances for people with small children and infants, and others who need assistance, is that when they get on the plane in one group, it creates a bottleneck.

If people who need extra help are randomly spread out during the boarding process, it saves 10 to 12 minutes. That may not sound like much, but as airlines struggle to get people to their destinations on time, 10 to12 minutes can jam up arrivals and departures for more than that one airplane.

My thought is that if I were traveling with a small child, I’d not be in any hurry to board. Spend less time on the airplane. The problem with that strategy is that with overhead bins becoming more packed as people avoid the cost of checking a bag, there won’t be space in the bins. Then you’d be stuck searching out a bin rows from your seat. See Heather’s post on how the trying to find bin space can look to a flight attendant.

Here’s one of my solutions for combating the headache of traveling on a plane with a small child. When at all possible, take the train. Stay tuned tomorrow for my post on how train travel worked out for me. My six year-old got us on the train first.