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Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 08:47 am

The airline industry’s fee-for-all

Big news, holiday travelers! American Airlines has a new family deal for you. If you and the kids are headed off to grandma’s house, Disney World or wherever, American will make an effort to seat you next to each other.

Well, that’s not exactly new or special, since most airlines have long done this. But here’s the “new” part in American’s family seating deal: You pay a fee for it. Being seated together is no longer a gracious service, but a calculated nickel-and-dime opportunity for the corporation to squeeze more out of you. And, actually, it’s quite a bit more than a nickel or a dime – to get “family seat reservations,” American hits you up for $25, each way.

Of course, paying this corporate tax doesn’t guarantee that your seats will actually stay attached to the plane. American, you might recall, had a rash of flights grounded in October due to the rather startling in-flight experience of passenger seats suddenly coming loose. At the time, the airline’s executives rushed to suggest that disgruntled members of the Transportation Workers Union were behind this odd malfunction.

Well, no. Internal documents have now revealed that the sabotage came right out of the executive suite. In order to charge additional fees to customers wanting a bit of extra legroom, the geniuses at the top ordered that the seating plan on American’s 757s be reconfigured.

Fine ... except they then tried to get the re-installations done on the cheap. Rather than having their own highly skilled and experienced mechanics do the work, they outsourced it to low-wage, non-union contractors. The contractors, “misinterpreted” American’s maintenance manual, did “incorrect installations” of seats and even had students doing some of the installations.  

Flying, which was once a fairly good experience, now amounts to being herded, harassed, barked at and squeezed – while being dunned every step of the way for fee after onerous fee. Make a reservation? Do it yourself, or pay extra. Check a bag? The fee for that is so pricey that most passengers have had to turn themselves into mules, toting their full load on board – a burden that some airlines are said to be viewing as a new fee opportunity, a chance to charge us for using the airplane bins to store the stuff we’re having to schlep.

What’s next, a charge to use the toilet? Yes! Here’s the CEO of a European airline, Ryanair, speaking a couple of years ago: “One thing we are looking at again is the possibility of maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door.” Hasn’t happened yet, but don’t count it out.

Even though the airlines are in the black again and keep raising their ticket prices (three times this year alone), they still keep jacking up fees ... because they can.

“We’re all about finding ways of raising discretionary revenue,” gloated the chief of Ryanair. Nearly every airline these days is addicted to fees, and the take is both huge and growing – these add-ons will pluck $36 billion from us customers this year, $4 billion more than last year.

Is there a tipping point at which consumer grumbling about these gouges turns to rebellion? A group called AirFareWatchDog.com thinks so. Noting that airlines are making profits again, it reports that the flying public has had it up to here with fees.

In response to rising customer fury, Delta Air Lines has taken action – not by cutting fees, but by henceforth refusing to disclose the full amount of fee revenue it takes from us each year.

Jim Hightower is national radio commentator, columnist and author.
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