Facing steep fuel prices and tough competition, airlines aren't cutting costs so much as passing them on.
All it took was a few decades of bankruptcies, mergers, fare wars, and government bailouts for the message to finally sink in: The old airline business model just doesn't work.
Throughout the industry, carriers are concentrating on efficiency, and that often means free meals, magazines, and pillows are goners. Travelers today are greeted with all-new costs--$2 for curbside check-in, $5 for a sandwich, $25 to fly standby, and more. "If the airlines could get away with it, they'd charge us for the air we breathe," says Christopher Elliott, a consumer travel expert and editor of Tripso.com. "The planes would probably have coin-operated toilets."
Food and drink
A complimentary hot meal used to be standard on long-haul domestic flights, but now it's the exception. In 2003, US Airways started asking $7 for breakfast and $10 for lunch or dinner. The move proved unpopular enough for the airline to drop prices by a couple bucks, but most competitors eventually followed suit. These days, expect to pay for anything more than a teeny bag of chips. And sometimes, you don't even get that without forking over some cash--Northwest yanked its free half-ounce bags of pretzels last June, saving (according to the airline) $2 million a year. Its passengers now pay $1 for a bag of raisins and mixed nuts; $3 for a snack box with a granola bar, cookies, crackers, and cheese; and $5 for a sandwich. Menus and prices are similar on many American, America West, and United flights. Obviously, bringing your own food or eating before boarding eliminates the expense, and you get to control the menu. With all other factors equal, consider flying Continental. At this point, it's the lone holdout among major carriers, still serving full meals on the longer domestic routes and charging passengers nothing--though some people say that's what the food is worth.
Most international flights still include meals and drinks, even booze, but who knows how long it'll last? Air Jamaica used to serve free beer and wine, but as of last July those in coach have to pay $2 for a Red Stripe and $3 for a tiny bottle of wine (though everyone receives a complimentary glass of champagne).
Over the past two years, most airlines quietly lowered their free weight allowance on checked bags from 70 pounds to 50 pounds apiece, and agents are enforcing the rules like never before. The standard fee is $25 for bags that weigh 51--70 pounds, and $50 for those weighing 71-100 pounds. (Many carriers won't accept anything over 100 pounds.) "The airlines say they had to change the weight limits because the heavier bags were a danger to their employees," says Joe Brancatelli, an industry watchdog and editor of joesentme.com. "But I guess if you give them $25, they're willing to put their workers at risk."
The restrictions are notoriously tough on Europe's low-fare carriers. EasyJet, for example, allows free checked luggage up to 44 pounds per passenger (not per bag) and charges almost $4 for each additional pound. Ryanair and others regularly enforce carry-on weight limits, too. What's most frustrating about the baggage allowance is that there's little consistency, even within a single airline. On transatlantic connections, British Airways, Alitalia, Iberia, Aer Lingus, and a few other European carriers allow bags weighing up to 70 pounds, free of charge. But if you buy a ticket flying only within Europe, the baggage rules are different. For instance, if you purchased a British Airways flight from London to Rome (but not a transatlantic leg to go along with it), you'd have to pay extra for bags weighing more than 51 pounds. Then again, the days of European airlines allowing 70-pound bags on transatlantic flights seem to be numbered: Lufthansa and Air France lowered their baggage limits to 50 pounds in November, matching the restrictions set by most U.S. carriers.
To get around the new rules, check two lighter bags rather than one heavy one, to make sure you don't get hit with a fee. If you'd rather pack a single bag, here's a safety valve: Stick an empty duffel bag in your suitcase; if the airline tries to charge you extra, redistribute weight to the duffel and check it as your second piece of luggage. Inquire ahead of time about bringing anything large or unusual on a flight--you're usually charged for scuba gear and bikes, but not for golf bags or ski equipment. Two airlines offer considerably more leeway. Southwest may have started charging for bags over 50 pounds a year ago, but it continues to allow passengers to check three bags. (Most carriers require $80 for the privilege.) And JetBlue doesn't charge unless a bag weighs more than 70 pounds.
Free magazines on planes have disappeared, notably on American and Northwest. Still, there are now many more options for passing the time than the old $3 in-flight movie. Alaska Airlines rents digital media players that show first-run movies and reruns of The Simpsons and other programs for $10. Frontier Airlines offers DirecTV for $5 and a choice of movies for $8. JetBlue charges $5 for movies, though it has free DirecTV. For that matter, there's plenty of gratis entertainment: AirTran and JetBlue have XM Satellite Radio (though AirTran charges $3 for headsets, and you keep them); American and Continental offer TV shows and movies at no charge (BYO headphones, or pay $5 or $2 respectively to buy a set); and United has free programming with loaner headsets. Whichever airline you're flying, bring your own headphones--they're bound to be better than the ones onboard.
After a test period last year in which United charged passengers $2 per bag for skycap service at big, hectic airports such as O'Hare, the airline now makes customers pay for curbside check-in on all flights. Northwest and Alaska Airlines also charge $2 for the service at select airports, as does American, which added on the fee at one of its main hubs, Dallas--Fort Worth, in December. Passengers can either pay the extra cash (along with a tip, because the new fees don't go directly to the skycaps) or wait in line inside the terminal.
To officially switch a flight at the last minute, you used to be subject to a fee of $100 or more, even if you were only shifting departure times by a few hours. The other option was to fly standby, which was free but risky--if a flight was full, there was nothing you could do. American, Northwest, and US Airways are now charging $25 to confirm you'll be on an alternate flight leaving the same day. They heralded the $25 charge as a cheaper alternative to the full change fee, but they certainly could confirm standby seats for free if they were chiefly interested in providing better service and making customers happy. There's fine print for the new offer: American Airlines, for example, lets you make the $25 change only if your new flight is within three hours of the original one. Winging it remains an option--go to the airport, ask a nice agent what your chances are, and wait. Or fly JetBlue (change fees start at only $20) or Southwest (which doesn't charge at all).
Pillows and Blankets
Many airlines removed pillows and blankets as a money saver and now sell all kinds of things on flights, including (surprise) pillows and blankets. In November, Air Canada started offering a $2 kit that includes an inflatable plastic pillow, pillowcase, and lightweight blanket. In December, flight attendants on Ted, United's low-cost carrier, began hawking $10 sleep kits (earplugs, eyeshade, socks, and an inflatable pillow), as well as $20 bracelets, $25 sunglasses, and other merchandise. Independence Air defends its practice of selling blankets and U-shaped pillows for $10 apiece. "It's better to provide amenities à la carte so that they're not automatically added into the cost of services," says Rick DeLisi, director of corporate communications. "These are high-quality products, at prices that are less than those at the airport gift shop or a fancy store in the mall." The airline didn't save enough to keep it from filing for bankruptcy in November.
Upgrades and Using Miles
It'll sometimes cost more than just frequent-flier miles to get an upgrade--or even a seat. In the past, miles alone were enough to trade for a flight or upgrade. But American Airlines charges 25,000 miles and $250 for upgrades on some international flights, while you'll have to pay a $50 late fee for using miles within two weeks of departure on Continental, Delta, and others.
A few airlines sell mini-upgrades. For $15--$100 more than standard coach, Spirit Airlines offers Spirit Plus seats--which have 37 inches of legroom, leather seats, and priority boarding and check-in. Likewise, SAS, Virgin Blue (which flies Down Under and in the South Pacific), and Martinair (offering connections between Amsterdam and Florida) are all charging extra for roomier seats. United's Economy Plus seats, with three to five inches of extra legroom, used to go automatically to loyal customers, but now anyone can pay $299 annually for a shot at the first-come-first-served seats.
Instead of assigning seats, Southwest lets passengers choose their own in three rounds, based on who's checked in earliest. Now, even that's for sale. For $5, a company called Boardfirst.com ensures you're in the first round of seating.