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On Airline Surcharges

05/27/08 | by Adam | Categories: Whining

Link: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB121137763935210567-lMyQjAxMDI4MTIxMTMyNzE3Wj.html

The link is to a Wall Street Journal piece about American Airlines imposing charges on checked luggage (via Political Animal.) It's a companion piece -- at least in spirit -- to one referenced earlier here which approached the fuel cost issue from the other side: efficiency.

What I don't understand is the why on fuel surcharges. Everyone knows that fuel is more expensive and as such it's really no surprise that fares based on one cost aren't, ahem, going to fly when a much higher one comes into force. For brief periods of time I can understand placing a surcharge for fuel: after all, if it's going to go down again in the short term, altering the base ticket price is an unwelcome. However, the price of fuel is not going down again. This isn't a spike; this is a sea change. Surcharges are an inappropriate mechanism for the long term fuel cost. It's not like you can fly without paying the price (unlike AA's baggage charge.) If the airlines wish to emphasize the cost of fuel as an item separate from the use of the plane, fine, show it as a part, but it's still part of the ticket cost and should be included as such. This goes for airport improvement fees, taxes and all those other wonderful mandatory travel costs; if it's not optional, it's part of the ticket.

But back to the optional surcharges. I can see the logic behind the base price of a ticket with a whole bunch of charges on top. Want a piece of luggage? Pay. Another piece? Pay again. Food? More money. Window seat? Aisle seat? More please. Blankets? Cushions? In-flight entertainment? Yeah, you guessed it. Post arrival delivery of luggage lost en route? Plane that departs and arrives on time? You can't afford that one. Any couple of those, one could understand. The whole chain of them starts becoming a little absurd and does indeed feel like nickeling and diming the customer.

With the American Airlines example cited above, realistically very few people indeed can travel for periods longer than a day with just the carry-on luggage permitted, particularly with the extra security limitations in place. What this change is going to do is encourage people to revert to carrying ridiculous amounts of cary-on to avoid checking their bags and no doubt slipping in some non-TSA-approved material like toothpaste of gel-based dedorant. This in turn slows boarding, delays take off and still irritates the customers. Checked luggage is part of the ticket price, not truly an optional choice. I'd have thought something like including that $15 in the ticket price but giving a coupon for a free drink to those traveling light would bring in more money overall and leave customers happier. It's not like anyone's actually figured out how much it really costs to fly given the entirely random pricing structure of airline tickets...

(Updated: Wired agrees with me; woohoo!)


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