Five airline fees you haven’t thought about (but they have!)

Over the past two years, the fees that airlines have figured out have been seemingly endless. Baggage and cancellations are just the tip of the iceberg. Now, passengers are stuck with a healthy dose of fee fatigue, but the good news is that there doesn’t seem to be anything left for which to charge – except maybe access to the flotation devices in the event of an emergency.

Well, don’t get too comfortable.

Despite having had a fantastic year in 2010, there are already grumblings in the airline industry about increasing fuel costs. This means, of course, that the additional expense will have to be passed along to us, the passengers, in some form. Even though we may not be able to think of (realistic) charges to levy, it seems as though the airlines have this under control, according to an article on MSN Money. Already, 19 different a la carte charges exist, and they are set to earn the airlines $22 billion worldwide for 2010.

So, the airlines want more of your money. How are they going to get it? Well, here are five ideas for them:1. Pay to talk to someone: do you need to talk to a ticket agent, or would you merely prefer to do so? Don’t worry; this perk option isn’t going away. You will have to pay for it, though, according to Jay Sorensen of IdeaWorks, a company involved in tracking consumer trends. The good news is that the only people in line will be shelling out cash for the privilege, so you won’t have to wait too long.

Alternative: if you want to talk to someone that badly, and are willing to pay for it, try online dating.

2. Pay to tote your own bags: are you ready to pay to avoid paying check-in fees? Spirit is already doing it, and most airlines in the United States have said they aren’t going to head in that direction. But, American Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways, according to MSN Money, “essentially have,” calling it “priority boarding or choice seating.” If you get a better seat you have a spot for your bags on a crowded flight. Otherwise, you’re stuck hoping for the best.

Alternative: make friends with a frequent flier.

3. Pay to take your bags overseas: we’re getting used to paying for checking the first bag on domestic flights, but we’ve been spared the humiliation when traveling internationally. That could change, though, especially since there’s money to be made.

Alternative: there’s a Paris in Illinois, too.

4. Pay to deal with your kids: so far, an infant on your lap has gotten a free ride, but this discomfort could cost you. George Hobica, of AirfareWatchdog, thinks this one could be on the list for 2011. “If the government doesn’t act to ban lap children,” he told MSN Money, “we might see the airlines make a move.”

Alternative: birth control.

5. Pay to be like everything else: back when I had platinum status on one airline and gold on another (in the same year), I came to appreciate the benefits – and this was even before the ancillary fee trend took hold. Now, status is worth even more, because it alleviates some of this fee pressure. The MSN Money article mentions that the hit could be targeted at non-elite loyalty program members, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see even the airlines’ best customers lose some of the perks someday.

Alternative: buy on price instead of loyalty.

[photo by compujeramy via Flickr]

Airlines celebrate record profits with new fees

If you were running a business that just pulled in record profits after two years of business hell, what would you do? Some companies would show their customers some appreciation. Others would find new lines of business or products in which to invest. The airlines, however, seem poised to jack up their fees.

Let’s face it: ancillary fees have been good to the airlines. Paying extra for food, checked bags and premium coach seating – not to mention cancellations – is the principal reason for the extra cash the industry pulled in last year. And having tasted success, the airlines want more.

According to a report in the Tampa Tribune, the prospect of increasing fuel costs is causing experts and analysts to forecast additional charges for passengers this year. Possibilities include a fee for paying with a credit card (a real gem since cash transactions are highly unlikely, especially online), using the web to make reservations and for talking to a human being to get a seat assignment. The first two are brutal, because passengers would be charged for behavior (a) encouraged by the airlines and (b) that lowers their operating costs.

George Hobica, founder of, tells the Tampa Tribune, effectively, that it’s a defensive move, since “[a]irlines don’t want to go back in the red.”

It’s also consistent with the emerging strategy of finding new ways to charge customers without having to raise ticket prices.

According to Hobica, as many as 10 new fees could gain traction in 2011, some of which are in use already.

So, is it gouging or prudent business? That’s hard to say. Airlines are in the business of generating profits – they can’t be faulted for that. Customers have little negotiating power, so the whole line of desperate thinking that we can somehow prevail seems moot.

[photo by Lindsay_Silveira via Flickr]

What the Southwest/AirTran merger means for consumers

Southwest Airlines announced yesterday that it will acquire AirTran in a cash plus stock deal.

Here’s what to expect:

1.) Good news for AirTran passengers and travel to/from/through Atlanta in general. Southwest has better service than AirTran, and lower fees (assuming that Southwest keeps the low/no-fee model, see number 4, below). Southwest is not keeping the AirTran brand.

2.) Southwest and AirTran don’t have much route overlap, so the merger in and of itself won’t lead to higher fares. But both airlines offer aggressive airfare sales almost weekly. We’ll see fewer of these, and fares will inch up. Remember, though, that fares can only go so high before consumers stay home, drive, take the BoltBus, or Amtrak. One route that does overlap is Boston to Baltimore, which both airlines fly nonstop for $78 round-trip; but JetBlue flies the route at the same fare, so as long as there are two airlines flying nonstop on the route, prices will stay reasonable. (In fact, Baltimore probably has the most overlapping routes, so we expect fares to go up there.)

3.) More fare pressure if other airlines continue the merger dance. American and US Air must be in panic mode as Southwest continues to grow. What next? An American/US Air marriage? Frontier/Midwest combine with USAir? JetBlue+American? The Southwest/AirTran merger came out of the blue, so anything and everything could be on the table.

4.) This impacts Delta, at least at first, the most. Will Delta eliminate checked bag and ticket change fees on competing routes to/from/through Atlanta to compete with Southwest’s fee model? Or will Southwest add fees? AirTran was a minor thorn in Delta’s side, but Southwest is going be a major thorn. AirTran was not a particularly healthy airline financially, and Southwest is.

5.) Southwest now becomes an international airline, if it keeps AirTran’s routes to Aruba, the Bahamas, etc. It also becomes a multi-aircraft airline, if it keeps AirTran’s Boeing 717’s along with Southwest’s 737 fleet.6.) Silver lining: as with all mergers of this kind, a plus is that if your flight is delayed or canceled you can now be re-routed over a much bigger route structure.

7.) It’s doubtful that Southwest will keep AirTran’s business class cabins, instead moving the airline to Southwest’s one-cabin model. Same for advance seat selection, which AirTran currently offers.

8.) The merger should win speedy Justice Department and DOT approval, since there is virtually no route overlap between the two airlines.

George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog™, the most inclusive source of airfare deals that have been researched and verified by experts. Airfarewatchdog compares fares from all airlines and includes the increasing number of airline-site-only and promo code fares.

[Flickr photo via gTarded]

How to avoid a $100,000 airfare

Emergency medical evacuation is a product most people probably don’t think they need. It sounds almost exotic, as if one’s trip would need to be inherently dangerous to justify the purchase.

Well, think again. Emergency medical evacuation is far from necessary for every vacation, but travelers concerned about potential health problems or accidents, or who are traveling to relatively remote destinations or even just taking a cruise, may feel a bit more comfortable knowing they can easily and affordably get to a health care center in the case of a medical emergency. And speaking of affordability, consider that a domestic medical evacuation can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and it can be over a $100,000 for international evacuations.

There are three main players in the emergency medical evaluation business: MedJet Assist, AirMed, and a newcomer, On Call International, which previously only sold coverage to travel insurance companies as a wholesaler. Each program offers annual subscriptions and individual trip coverage options, but the products differ somewhat, as you’ll see in this chart.

Still, you can expect a similar set of benefits, not just medical evacuation, but also “family reunion” transportation (when a spouse or other relative needs to join or travel with an ill or injured family member), medical monitoring/consultation, and travel assistance services such as cash advances and legal consultation.

There are a few things to look for when purchasing this kind of service. First, you probably want a program that will bring you to your hospital of choice-anything else sort of defeats the purpose. You’ll also want to make sure there are no restrictions on pre-existing conditions, lest you risk being denied transport when injury or illness befalls you. If there are any such restrictions, it should go without saying that you read them thoroughly. Keep in mind that none of the big three evacuation providers provide transport for conditions or hospitalizations already in effect when a customer enrolls in their program. So no breaking your leg before your trip and then signing up for an airlift!

Lastly, make sure you completely understand how the evacuation procedure works. Who decides when an evacuation is necessary? What circumstances qualifies a person for evacuation? Can customers literally be evacuated from anywhere on the globe to any medical facility they choose? One distinction between On Call and its competitors is that it provides coverage starting at 50 miles from home, versus 150 miles for the other two firms. That might not sound like a big difference, unless you’re, say, a Manhattan resident who becomes suddenly ill late at night on Fire Island, a barrier island which is just 60 miles from the New York City.

Remember, also, that none of these companies’ offerings should be confused with medical insurance, and in virtually all cases, your medical insurance provider does not cover emergency evacuation needs. The two will work in tandem to cover the transportation and medical expenses incurred should you end up in the hospital while traveling.

So again, while medical evacuation coverage is not something most people really need, some travelers may appreciate having in their back pocket.

George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog™, the most inclusive source of airfare deals that have been researched and verified by experts. Airfarewatchdog compares fares from all airlines and includes the increasing number of airline-site-only and promo code fares.

[Flickr photo via moaksey]

British Airways’ re-launched First is worth every mile

Recently, I spent $75 to get a seat in British Airways‘ new and improved first class cabin from New York to London, and although my original flight was ash-canned, I did eventually get there. And to paraphrase the Beatles, man, I did not have a dreadful flight.

To quickly explain: I signed up for a British Airways-branded Chase Visa Card ($75 annual fee) and was awarded 100,000 bonus frequent flyer miles, enough to cover the 75,000 (one-way) required for a ride way in BA’s newly-refreshed premier cabin. Heck, I don’t fly much these days, and my 56-year-old posterior isn’t as padded as it used to be, nor are my joints quite as supple, so $75 for a little comfort is just what the chiropractor ordered.

Had I actually bought that seat? Well, honestly, on my salary and at my pay grade, that would have been unlikely. It would have cost several thousand dollars-more if I paid full freight, less if I had bought a heavily discounted fare.

As it turned out, that Iceland volcano had other plans for me, and my flight was canceled. My hopes of attending a reunion at my Oxford college, where I was a graduate student 30 years earlier, were vaporized.

But last week, I was invited as a guest of BA, in my capacity as an airfare/airline pundit, to give First Class another shot.

Most air travel these days, whether to the former USSR or to Bangor, can be pretty dreadful. But not in seat 3K on a BA 777.

No one is quite sure who (Flaubert? Einstein?) first said that “God is in the details” (it’s also been said that the devil is in them too), but first class on most international airlines is already pretty fine, so the only way an airline can improve its premier product is by concentrating on the fine points.

And this, clearly, BA has done. The padding on the seats is plumper. The seats are 60 percent wider at the shoulders. The video screens are bigger. The cabin lighting is softer and prettier. The reading lights are brighter. The window shades are electronic. Each seat now comes with its own closet. The pillows are bigger. The bedsheets of a finer Egyptian cotton. The armrests disappear as the bed reclines to its fully-flat, fully-horizontal position, giving you even more room. The dedicated check-in areas are more exclusive-note the comfy easy chairs. The arrival and departure lounges are more luxurious. I particularly liked the terrace overlooking the bustle at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

BA was in strike mode when I flew, so catering was a bit handicapped; thus I can’t say if they have improved the in-flight cuisine. I suspect they have, however (actually the substituted chicken tikka was quite good). I’ll have to wait for my next first class adventure to try the amuse bouche, and to find out if the 2004 Tattinger Champagne, normally served in First, is better chilled, or the caviar fresher.

After all, I still have those 100,000 miles burning a hole in my Executive Club account, and maybe I’ll be around for my 40th college reunion. By then that volcano will be extinct. I hope.