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.