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feb 23 2010

The airlines and a la carte passenger anger

Baggage fees and other nickel-and-dime strategies may net airlines some short-term revenues. But at what cost? There's no doubt that such practices are annoying the heck out of customers.

The airlines seem to be winning the battle over fees: Nearly every carrier now charges for checked baggage, and the fees are only getting more expensive. It's certainly possible, however, that by winning this series of battles, the airlines are increasing their chances of losing the war for customer loyalty.

The Washington Post and the New York Times both recently published stories that basically describe the situation as open warfare between passengers and airlines.

The Times writes:

In the space of 18 months, the concept of a plane ticket has been transformed from an all-inclusive purchase to a pay-as-you-go plan, turning the relationship between airlines and customers increasingly sour.

Every time a passenger books a ticket, it seems, major airlines have come up with more ways to charge for what once was free, like fees for reserving more desirable seats in the economy section of the plane.

From the WP:

Ever-changing fees, meanwhile, are just the latest wrinkle in a chaotic baggage situation confronting today's airline passengers. Add it to heightened security, more overcrowded flights and fewer amenities in the air, and you have to wonder: Could it be the straw that makes airline travelers finally, well, bag it?

I hope things don't go that far. But there's no doubt that flying can leave a bad taste in one's mouth. In the past, you were excited to go to the airport because the airline was taking you somewhere. Now, you're disgusted because you're getting taken by the airline in an entirely different sense.

If the fee-for-all doesn't turn off people from flying, it may at least turn travelers toward the airlines that don't nickel and dime customers. In the part of our Readers' Choice survey dedicated to your favorite (and least favorite) carriers, Southwest Airlines (the only domestic carrier that allows passengers to check two bags free of charge) has received tons of accolades, with comments like:

Domestically one cannot beat Southwest Airlines. They offer reasonable prices, timely flights and friendly service. One can actually use the frequent flyer points without resorting to the premium offering. They don't pad their revenue with baggage and change fees. They are straight forward and get you where you need to go with a minimum of aggravation.

And:

Best Domestic: Southwest and Delta. I travel for business weekly and both of the airlines deliver what they promise. Southwest wins by a hair due to the no baggage fee.

And:

Southwest, by far! Even though I hate the 'seat lottery', I applaud their consistency, on time departures and arrivals, in-flight humor, predictability, and NO BAG FEES. Criminy, almost every leisure traveler has a suitcase to check, and transporting that bag should be PART OF THE TICKET PRICE. Airlines who charge THOSE fees are despicable--and the parade of numerous and oversize 'carryons' brought on by passengers is just amazing... We try to fly SWA whenever possible, because we respect their business model.

You get the idea.

It's not just the feedback of some travelers indicating that flyers prefer carriers that don't charge fees every step of the way. Through nearly all of 2009, which was an off year for travel, Southwest and Jetblue (which allows one free checked bag per passenger) showed a consistent increase in passenger numbers. Meanwhile, so-called "legacy" carriers like American and Delta, which were once contrasted as the luxurious polar opposites of "discount" or "no-frills" carriers like Southwest, saw their passenger numbers get smaller and smaller.

Coincidence?

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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