Are airline fees about to go higher?

What could possibly be next? Absent Ryanair-style fee insanity, there seems to be little the airlines can do to our wallets now. Blankets, bags and beverages are just the tip of the iceberg: it seems anything that can come at a price does. The only thing missing is a seemingly well-intentioned Congress that wants its share of the airlines’ recently found largess.

Make no mistake about it: extra fees translate to real money for airlines. Last year, they amounted to $7.9 billion in the United States, and in the second quarter of 2010, the top six airlines in the country picked up $2.1 billion. Following the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, this is cash these companies desperately needed to collect.

This is where Congress enters the picture. Right now, the government scores a 7.5 percent on fares. By effectively unbundling certain “amenities” – like checked baggage – from the fares, the airlines can charge lower prices, with the ancillary stuff charged on a pay-to-play basis. In the end, the feds are stuck with a smaller revenue base to tax. And, the airlines are able to bypass the excise tax, and boost their profits a bit.To plug the hole, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia has proposed legislation that would subject the additional fees to the same 7.5 percent tax as the fares, restoring at least some of the lost tax revenue. From the perspective of Congress, this makes sense. The feds took it on the chin financially when the airlines unbundled, and they need to make up for it (because cutting spending just doesn’t seem to be an option).

For the airlines, this poses a problem. Either they can swallow the pill and take the 7.5 percent it against their revenues, or they can pass the additional cost along to their customers. Since 2011 is likely to be a tougher year for the sector than 2010, it looks to me like the writing is on the wall. Why absorb it when you can pass it along, right?

The tax is being proposed, so give it some time. But, if it hits, I’d expect we’ll feel it, too.