Airlines' fees risk discouraging travel

A Skycap assists travelers at O'Hare International Airport.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Cheap airfares can be great, but now more than ever you've just got to read the fine print. Today American Airlines joined the list of carriers that're taking an extra 25 bucks from passengers wanting to check a second bag. Add that to the fuel surcharges that've been phased in over the past couple of months and, depending on where you're flying, the fees could add up to more than the airfare. It's tough to argue when airlines say they need the extra cash because their gas bills are soaring.

But Marketplace's Nancy Marshall Genzer reports from Washington the fees could send customers packing.


NANCY MARSHALL GENZER: So, you want to actually talk to a human next time you book a flight? That'll cost you -- anywhere from $5 to $25. Want curbside check in? That's typically another 2 bucks a bag. And the airlines are charging an arm and a leg for legroom.

JAMES WAGONER: You know, we'll give you four extra inches for $125. It's ridiculous.

James Wagoner is 6-foot-4. He towers over other passengers waiting for their luggage at Washington's Reagan National Airport. Wagoner says it's hard to get the best deal now, because some airlines include surcharges upfront, and others don't.

WAGONER: You think you've got a good price and you lock in and then when they give you the total price they add on all the surcharges and fees and taxes and everything else. So it's difficult to compare apples to apples on the Net.

In fact, on some short flights, the surcharges cost more than the ticket itself! The airlines say they could improve service for everybody with an across-the-board fare hike. But they're afraid their customers would fly the coop for discount airlines. So, the big boys turned to the surcharges, which are easier to impose.

Some passengers, like 23-year-old Maizy Wilkinson, like the a la carte fee system.

MAIZY WILKINSON: I choose to fork out the $40 for extra leg room and I get extra leg room.

But Jeft Stout, who flew into Washington from Salt Lake City, says he'd rather go back to a one-size-fits-all ticket price. He'd even pay more for the promise of better service.

JEFF STOUT: I know the airlines have to make money but I think they do themselves a disservice when people feel think they're always having their hand out for something.

Some passengers here say the surcharges are such a turnoff they're starting to take the train to New York. Aviation attorney Josh Romanow says the airlines have to be careful.

JOSH ROMANOV: And if the airlines price passengers out of the market and people stop flying, then the only thing they can do to get people back again is incentives, lowering fares and -- a tale of the past -- the days of the fare wars.

While you're waiting for war to break out, don't forget to pack extra cash for your next flight.

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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