Fees, fees, fees! Will airlines please stop nickel-and-diming us?

As everyone knows, airlines are resorting to the practice known as “unbundling” as a means of increasing revenue. Flying has gone a la carte: $50 for a second piece of luggage; $20 for a take-home fleece blanket and hypoallergenic pillow; that old beef-or-chicken entrée is now a $6 sandwich wrap.

But these ancillaries were never “free.” They were included in the price of your ticket. And that price used to be higher. It’s impossible to have a rational discussion about unbundling without first acknowledging the fact that fares are as low as they are. It’s amusing to hear a passenger whine about the cost of checking in a bag after paying $159 to fly cross-country. And although unbundling can leave customers feeling nickel-and-dimed, it’s a smart idea that in that those looking for perks can have them, absorbing a higher share of the cost. Is it not better to charge a premium for specific items, not all of which everybody wants, rather than raise prices across the board?

Nonetheless, it’s a practice that should only be taken so far. In 2010, in a move that ignited controversy, Fort Lauderdale-based Spirit Airlines began charging up to $45 for carry-on bags. This pushes the concept to the edge of the envelope. Beyond it, really, and against the spirit, pardon the pun, of unbundling. Let’s be realistic; a carry-on bag is not an optional item — not when the airline already charges for checked bags.

How far will airlines go to maximize revenue? The same month that Spirit unveiled it’s carry-on fees, Europe’s Ryanair announced it would start charging 1 euro for the use of a lavatory. (The company eventually backed off, but Ryaniar’s cost-saving gimmicks are legendary and not to be underestimated.) I once joked that airlines would soon be selling advertising space on their overhead bins and tray tables. No sooner had I opened my mouth when, riding on a US Airways jet, I folded down my tray table and discovered a cell-phone ad staring me in the face. Call me a romantic, but perhaps airlines wouldn’t have so much trouble earning respect if they weren’t so willing to sell their souls.


A version of this question, and dozens more, can be found in the new book.


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