Free is too expensive for today’s airlines

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(eTN) – Out went the free meals and in came the fuel surcharges, excess baggage fees and $2 pillows. In the brutal airline business, every penny counts, especially when fuel costs are near record highs.

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(eTN) – Out went the free meals and in came the fuel surcharges, excess baggage fees and $2 pillows. In the brutal airline business, every penny counts, especially when fuel costs are near record highs.

The price of aviation jet fuel is more than 30 per cent higher than it was a year ago. The International Airline Transport Association estimates every dollar added to the price of crude oil, which could go as high as $80 U.S. a barrel this summer, adds $1 billion U.S. to the airline industry’s costs.

But airlines are going to absurd lengths to cut costs. Earlier this year, Air Canada tested a theory that planes stripped of paint fly lighter and, therefore, cheaper. The plan was soon scrapped. Last month, it revealed it was considering carrying wine in a box rather than bottles as a way to cut down on weight and save on wine costs. And last year, the airline got international attention for piloting a pay-for-your-own-pillow plan — a $2 Comfort Kit with a blanket and inflatable pillow.

At least Air Canada has a pillow option. American Airlines, one of several airlines to eliminate pillows, estimates it saves $700,000 U.S. by eliminating them.

Airlines call it flying a la carte – asking passengers to pay for everything from a bag of pretzels to an aisle seat. Unbundling free services, they argue, is the only way they can keep fares competitive. Consumer Reports, which examined ever-creeping airline fees in its January issue, calls it nickel-and-diming.

Herewith, a catalogue of their miserly tactics, sometimes disguised as rewards:

Travel light. A number of airlines have reduced free baggage allowances, and are keeping a keen eye on the scales at check-in. Those extra pounds can add up: I once paid #1 for my ticket on discount European carrier Ryanair — and #40 for my bag. (Ryanair is a master at getting customers to pay for extra services in return for cheap flights. Last year, the airline generated $265 million U.S. from sources other than air tickets.)

Beginning this month, Air Canada has upped the ante on the baggage-shrinking issue. If you do not check in any luggage, you can get a $10 discount on your Air Canada Tango fare.

Legroom premiums. In the good old days, if you couldn’t afford a roomy business-class seat, you could at least hope for an aisle seat, or better yet, an exit row. Some airlines are now charging for the extra legroom in these choice seats. In March, Northwest Airlines rolled out its legroom-for-cash plan, charging $15 U.S. for aisle seats.

Please don’t call. A number of airlines are offering discounts to get passengers to book through their websites. This amounts to a fee for phoning in your booking, which surely is discriminatory against elderly people who haven’t jumped on the information highway. Air Canada charges an extra $20 per passenger for bookings made via telephone instead of the website, up to a maximum of $50 per booking.

Pack a lunch, and headphones. Each time I board a plane I remember what I forgot: those $5 headphones for inflight entertainment I paid for on my last flight. I have no fewer than a half-dozen pairs from various airlines, all of them in my closet instead of in my carry-on. On a recent charter flight, I witnessed a teen sitting beside me beat the headphone racket: she simply plugged her iPod into the system and tuned in just fine.

Of course, passengers have grown accustomed to going without an inflight meal on most flights within North America – or paying $4 to $5 for a sandwich or slice of pizza. Air Canada is charging $2 for a bag of wine gums. But that’s for the large bag – a real steal.

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