Gotcha! Extra fees are the future for cheap flights

As a general rule, I reckon it used to take 10 to 20 years for American ideas to germinate in Australia. However, just as new TV shows and first-release movies now premiere here virtually simultaneously with their first runs in Europe and the USA, the goings on in the northern hemisphere these days have no sooner been thought of before they’re being picked up Down Under.

That doesn’t fill me with a whole lot of endorphins when it comes to the travel business. It’s never been cheaper to fly and the airline industry sometimes behaves like a charity, such is its ability to lose money, but we’re in for some whacky twists and turns as air transport experiments with its future value equation for consumers.

Not content with its invention of the low-cost carrier 40 years ago when Southwest Airlines first flew, America has now spawned the ultra-low-cost carrier (let’s call it the ULCC), which is just like Europe’s Ryanair, Australia’s Tiger Airways and Asia’s AirAsia, only on steroids when it comes to fees and charges.

Florida-based ULCC Spirit Airlines grabbed a headline last week when it bettered its previous pioneering work in becoming the first airline in the world to charge for carry-on baggage.

Apart from providing the industry’s most aggressive fees for checked baggage, Spirit already charges up to $US45 for a carry-on bag that won’t fit under the seat in front of you and has to go in the overhead locker. But, from November 6, Spirit will charge $US100 ($A98) for a carry-on bag that hasn’t been pre-purchased and has to be “bought at the gate”. Consumer groups are outraged, but the airline knows what it’s doing. “We expect that our new $100 fee charged for those who wait until they get to the gate will ensure that customers purchase their bags before arriving at the gate,” spokeswoman Misty Pinson said in a statement quoted by the Los Angeles Times.

You’d have to be crazy to leave yourself open to such highway robbery, right? Wrong. Spirit has one of the strongest growth rates among airlines in America.

Despite criticism of the company, the stock market pundits love it. Spirit is rated a “good buy” by airline analyst Ray Neidl of New York-based Maxim Group. “Although these items are generating negative media attention, the customers still come because, we believe, of the cheap airfares offered and the option to buy whatever upgrades that they want,” Neidl told the LA Times.

If we could only get these super-aggressive air fare spruikers to stop lying. Last November, the US Transportation Department fined Spirit $US50,000 for advertising $US9 airfares for flights from Los Angeles without clearly disclosing the full price, including taxes and fees.

"We expect airlines to treat their passengers fairly, and we will take enforcement action when they violate our price advertising rules," US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.

In fact, Spirit now charges nearly $US34 to book a return flight online. Late last year, Spirit raised its "passenger usage fee" from $US8.99 for one-way domestic flights to $US16.99. The only way to avoid the fee is to buy a ticket at an airport counter. But the airline also charges passengers $US5 to print out a ticket at the airport counter.

“Passenger usage fee”? Give us a spell! What is a person doing if s/he’s buying a ticket from an airline? I’d like to think such Orwellian doublespeak is a one-off, but, in truth, it’s everywhere, especially in the airline industry.

Marketers and spin doctors process every word for public consumption. In fact, the key executives who run airlines are simply not available for a conversation about anything any more, unless it is set up days in advance and monitored by a spin doctor.

Everything an airline says these days has to be second-guessed. Very little of what is approved for publication has value. Most of it is designed to hide the truth.

Like Spirit’s claim that it has installed new non-reclining seats because they are 30 per cent lighter, cut down on fuel costs and offer 20 per cent more space under the seat.

The real reason is that Spirit (and many other LCCs that have installed non-reclining chairs) can seat 33 more passengers in the "pre-reclined" seats in the airline's new Airbus A320s than in an older A320s with conventional reclining seats. It’s all about money and economics.

Do you find "gotcha!" fees a turn-off for using low-cost airlines? Have you found, in some or all cases, that when you add up the fees, it's cheaper to use another carrier - even a full-service carrier? Do you like the way airlines are heading with all their new optional charges?

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