Column by Loretta Redd
Standing in line at the airport, I awaited baggage check for an international flight. I had already paid to have my one piece of luggage placed in the belly of the silver beast. My trip was to last a couple of weeks and involved a variety of meetings, climates and events. I didn’t have the option of strolling around a foreign country in a wind breaker, Capri shorts and lightweight walking shoes.
The gentleman in line ahead of me was, shall we say, large. I don’t mean simply overweight, I mean ‘large’ as in 300 pound linebacker large. He had a small roll-aboard, but there was no way I could squash what was necessary on my trip into a 36″ case, unless I planned a rendition of ‘Jack in the Box’ at customs.
When the agent at the counter asked me to lift my bag onto the scale, it registered fifty four pounds.
“You’re only allowed fifty pounds. You’ll have to either remove four pounds or pay a fee for overage,” he said, in a tone that sounded vaguely as though I were trying to get away with espionage. I asked him if he cared to guess my body weight in comparison to the human refrigerator that had just checked in.
“I’m not trying to be difficult,” I said, “but that gentleman outweighs me by at least 150 pounds, and he didn’t pay a penny more. My bag is four pounds over, and you want to zap my credit card. Now, does that seem fair to you?”
I of course, knew what his reply would be before the words left my mouth…”Yada yada, it’s company policy, nothing I can do about it, yada yada.” So rather than expose my luggage contents to those waiting not-so-patiently behind me in line, I handed over the credit card.
Common sense tells me that roll-aboards do more to complicate security and delay boarding than asking passengers to obtain their luggage at baggage claim. Have you ever watched the increasing anxiety as people scramble for space to stow 125 carry-on suitcases, plus laptops, overcoats and oversized purses on a 130 passenger flight?
Once entering the airplane, they create safety hazards from attempting to secure or dislodge their rolling suitcases without beaning the passenger occupying the seat below, especially when the masses jump from their seats in the first nanosecond after the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign is turned off.
Alas, I paid my “ancillary fee” for my four pound penance. Others, of course, had already paid extra for sitting in a seat where their knees weren’t pressed against their foreheads, or the new $2 charge on some flights for an aisle or window seat. There’s the $9 fee for ‘priority boarding’ (first shot at those overhead compartments come at a premium.)
Still awaiting us onboard is the privilege of paying for a movie released two years ago, and one of those lovely boxed meals where it’s difficult to tell if you’ve remembered to take of the wrapper. These days, blankets or pillows are out of the questions, but you can still have ‘free’ soft drinks or juice. You have to beg to keep the entire can, rather than the two ounces of liquid poured onto the six ice cubes in the 8 oz plastic cup.
I wouldn’t be surprised during an emergency decent when the yellow masks fall from above, if you didn’t have to swipe your debit card in order to “ensure the flow of oxygen” or allow you to buckle up with your seat belt, but charge you to release it.
The airlines won’t answer a phone, driving you to make your own reservations on line, then some of them charge a “convenience fee” for using the damn internet. There are plenty of other hidden fees, like the charge to change your reservation or redeem awards points, or on some airlines like Allegiant, a charge for using a credit card. When’s the last time you could find a ticket agent outside of an airport, much less expect them to make change for a cash payment?
Again, the computer age hasn’t served to reduce the cost to consumers as much as you might imagine. The global distribution system (GDS) of computer reservations is making a hefty profit ($7 billion in fees) off of the airlines by pitting the sites that bundle services like Travelocity against the once ‘pure’ airline sites like United. The fees seem to change faster than the Big Board on Wall Street, each time you open the webpage, there’s a different number, resulting in a sense that you’d better “buy now,” or it will just get more expensive.
All told, we aren’t talking chump change. Airlines are required to disclose income from baggage fees ($932 million in 2011) and reservation change fees ( $661 million in 2011) but they aren’t required to report on all the other charges. These little ‘ancillary fees‘ are big business to the airlines, bringing in $2.5 billion in 2007, jumping to $22 billion in 2010, and over $36 billion last year.
Even with all of these additional costs to flying, the industry runs a lean profit margin of around 5% for the nine largest carriers. And whether they running gains or losses depends greatly on their fuel costs. When the Big Five oil companies (BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell) earn $368 million per day, posting $137 billion profit in 2011, it is hard to lay all of the blame on the airlines.
So why do we put up with it? Much like the gasoline price escalation, have we simply have resigned ourselves to being powerless? Do we believe that the airline’s margin of profit is soooo small, and the convenience of airline travel is soooo great, that we consider it a privilege to be treated like cattle in order to get somewhere simply alive?
In some ways, we got what we asked for as travelers. Since our demand for industry deregulation in 1978, airfares have been cut in half, and ushered in the era of budget airlines and ‘no-frills’ flying. Corporations now Skype rather than fly executives halfway around the globe, others rely on their own corporate jets rather than pay business class. The profit margin on airlines per se may be narrow, but other industries making a buck off of our wanderlust and willingness to be duped, are flying high.
Many travelers argue that they simply want airlines to “improve services.” But as an article on moneymorning.com put it, “The general experience of flying is so universally unappealing that an airline competing on superior service is like a dentist competing on a more comfortable chair.”