As Sarah Johnston budgets for her family's annual post- Christmas trek to Ft. Myers, Fla., there's a new expense to consider: the cost of checking bags for her family of six.
Luggage fees are one of a host of new charges in store for many infrequent fliers planning getaways during the Thanksgiving and Christmas travel seasons.
Southwest Airlines, are slapping charges on everything from window seats to toting pets on board to redeeming frequent-flier miles. Starting this month, Chicago-based United Airlines, the leader of this movement, will boost selected fees for the third time this year.
The extra costs can add up quickly. If Johnston, a Chicago banker, had stuck with her traditional carrier, she would have had to pay an extra $120 round trip to check the four large suitcases her family will lug to Florida. For any bag weighing more than 50 pounds, she'd be hit with an additional $250 charge, round trip.
"For me, it's always been American and United," Johnston said. "And now it's going to be Southwest."
Many services that travelers once took for granted are now provided free of charge only to carriers' most valued customers: those who buy business and first-class tickets or who log tens of thousands of miles on a given airline each year, analysts said.
For everyone else, most airlines are shifting rapidly to an a la carte model. The idea is that passengers flying on discounted tickets will pay for perks they select and pay the most for services that add the greatest strain to operations, like baggage. That's why carriers have raised fees for transporting bulky items such as surfboards.
Airlines will reduce their costs as well as wear and tear on their expensive baggage systems if passengers pack lighter or wheel their bags on board their flights, analysts said. Carriers also will make money on fees.
United, for one, said one in four customers checks a second bag, but not all will be required to pay the $50 fee the carrier will start charging on Nov. 10."It's outsourcing to the customer," said airline consultant Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co. "If you give us your bag, we'll charge you. If you don't, it's your responsibility and we won't lose it."
United estimates it will generate $1 billion in fee income next year, up from the $600 million it expects this year. United also has introduced a new service, in partnership with FedEx Corp., that handles luggage door to door for $149 per bag.
That's one reason some travel analysts think the era of fees is here to stay.
"These guys are in a survival mind-set right now," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents travel buyers. "If they alienate a few people on the margin, they don't care."
But the new fees can nip even travel pros, like U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters.
"I took my son and his family to the airport yesterday, and when they checked in they learned they had to pay a fee for checking a car seat," Peters related last week during a visit to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
Peters said she was surprised by the extra fee for a safety-related item. She added that the Transportation Department's aviation consumer protection office is examining how airline fees are assessed to "ensure that passengers are treated fairly."
Airlines say it is too early to tell whether passengers are alienated by the fees, which have been in effect widely for only a few months. But Chicago public relations executive David Lundy vows he's abandoning American Airlines, despite holding a "gazillion" of its frequent-flier miles.
"This offends me to no end," Lundy said.
Dallas-based Southwest is gambling that it will attract sufficient numbers of disenchanted customers to offset the money it is leaving on the table by not charging fees.
"At the end of the day, we believe our customers deserve transparency and not tricks," said Kevin Krone, Southwest's vice president for marketing, sales and distribution.
But Krone concedes the no-fee policy could be dropped if it doesn't resonate with travelers.
"If customers tell us they don't care or show no preference, we would have to seriously look at our position."