FLYING THE FEE-FILLED SKIES

The Baltimore Sun

What will they think of next?

Pay toilets? A seat belt fee?

Airlines, strapped by spiking fuel prices, a weakened economy and softening demand, are on the prowl for revenue, and coming up with an array of ways to extract it from passengers' pockets. And that's on top of the steady fare increases in the form of fuel surcharges that they've slapped on this year.

Checking the golf clubs in addition to a bag? Ca-ching. Like that little bit of extra leg room in the emergency exit row? Ca-ching. Taking your kitty along? Ca-ching. Those new charges and fees have popped up or increased as the economic vise has tightened.

Charging $5 here and $20 there for various amenities can add up to millions at a time when many airlines are hemorrhaging money, with the legacy carriers collectively losing over $1 billion in the first quarter.

Be prepared: We could see even more extra charges down the road, said Jay Ellenby, president of Safe Harbors Travel Group in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood. Charging for checking even one bag or for nonalcoholic beverages is no longer unimaginable, he said.

"What I'm hearing from customers is that they're willing to pay a few dollars more for an aisle seat and window seat; they're willing to pay for extra baggage," Ellenby said. "There is a price point that airlines realize hasn't been hit yet. They can get away with it."

Leisure travelers, particularly those traveling with lots of luggage and family members in tow, may feel particularly hard hit. You now pay more to travel with those fishing rods and skis.

The major legacy airlines recently enacted $25 charges to check a second bag to offset creeping fuel costs. Discounter AirTran Airways, which now charges $10 to check a second bag, seems like a relative bargain.

Southwest Airlines started the bag-checking fee frenzy in January, but the low-fare behemoth only starts charging with the third bag ($25).

"Most of these costs are really targeted at the leisure traveler," said Kevin Mitchell, founder of the Business Travel Coalition. "If you're going to fly somewhere with a couple of kids and you're going to get whacked a couple hundred bucks for extra baggage, that could affect your decision."

The good news is that low-cost Southwest and AirTran are the dominant carriers at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, and while they too are increasing fees, they are generally less than those of the legacy airlines.

Neither airline charges to check your bags curbside when you drive up to BWI. Delta Air Lines now charges the most - $3 per bag - at all airports where it offers the service.

The other major BWI carriers make you pay $2 per bag.

But AirTran will nail you for an extra $6 if you want to book seat assignments in advance of check-in - and $20 if you want the roomier exit row. AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver points out that booking a seat in advance is optional and unnecessary. US Airways also charges for those coveted aisle and window seats in the front of the plane.

While Southwest still doesn't assign seats, it did start charging $10 to $30 on top of its highest fares for the right to board the plane first. This "Business Select" program began in November. Purchasing a Business Select ticket also earns you an extra Rapid Rewards credit.

But the airline made its Rapid Rewards frequent-flier program more restrictive in November.

To avoid seat restrictions and experience fewer blackout dates, Southwest travelers now often have to use two Rapid Rewards Standard Awards (converted into a new Freedom Award), especially to lock in free fares to a popular destination. Previously, only one Standard Award was required for booking all free round trips.

Air-mailing the kids to grandma this summer? That'll cost you, too. Delta recently doubled its rate for unaccompanied minors to $100 one way. Continental raised its fee to $75 on nonstop flights and $100 for connecting ones, up from $50. Southwest will still fly unaccompanied children without an extra charge, but allows them only on nonstops.

And if grandma needs to book a flight herself? Don't let her do it over the phone. Reserve it for her online instead. Many airlines now charge you at least $15 to book the flight the old-fashioned way.

What about your dog or cat? Leave it at home if you can. United has just raised its carry-on fee for small pets to $100 one way (up from $85) to match fees already charged by Delta and US Airways. American and Northwest charge $80 for in-cabin pets. AirTran offers the best bargain - $65 per trip - so long as your pet carrier fits under the seat.

Southwest doesn't give you the option. Pets aren't allowed on-board, nor can they be checked as cargo. Handling animals on flights would slow down Southwest's quick turnaround times on the ground, the airline says.

If you enjoy an in-flight cocktail or glass of beer or wine, AirTran charges $1 more than most other airlines: $6. But the carrier now offers VitaminWater energy drinks as a complimentary beverage choice, an option that costs you $3 on Delta. Selling specialty nonalcoholic drinks could become a new revenue stream for the struggling industry.

Southwest just started serving Monster Lo-Carb Energy Drinks for $3 per 8.3-ounce can. Soft drinks, juices and water are still free.

"It will be a sad day when they actually charge for water on a plane because you really need it to stay hydrated," said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, a travel site that tracks airlines. "That would be one of the last things to go. It's sort of like being a prisoner at that point."

Still, Seaney said we will increasingly see airlines shift to the ? la carte model of some of the no-frills European airlines. The discount Irish giant Ryanair keeps costs down by charging for each piece of baggage checked and not offering complimentary beverages or snacks, which its British competitor EasyJet also forgoes.

"The bean counters at the airlines are studying the entire process of flying," Seaney said. "Anything they can extract extra fees from you on, they'll try it."

Complimentary in-flight meals and snacks more substantial than pretzels and peanuts started disappearing from coach flights within the continental United States years ago. Southwest and AirTran have never offered meal service, a cost-cutting measure that allows these carriers to keep their fares relatively cheap. The other major carriers now charge you for snack boxes and sandwiches, with fees ranging from $3 to $8.

The one exception is Continental Airlines, which still serves free meals on economy flights over three hours in length and free snacks on those over two hours long. But the carrier only has 13 daily departures at BWI.

On flights longer than 1,271 miles, Southwest splurges a bit, giving passengers a choice of free Ritz cheese sandwich crackers or 100 Calorie-packs of Oreos or Nabisco Wheat Thins.

Packing food to take on-board is the best way to both save money and be assured you'll have something appetizing to eat. Bring those headphones along too. While airlines such as AirTran and United still give out free ones, some, like US Airways, have started charging $5 a pop for them. JetBlue Airways will stop handing out free headsets June 1.

Later next month, JetBlue said, it will phase out complimentary blankets and pillows in favor of better-quality ones for which passengers will pay a still-undisclosed price.

As long as fuel prices stay record high, Seaney, of FareCompare.com, said to expect more fees for airline services that were once free.

"Anything that you could possibly do as part of the process of flying is basically being nickeled and dimed now," he said. "From the time you get in the car to go to the airport to the time you exit the gate at your destination, they're looking to see if there's anything they can charge you additionally for."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

You'll have to pay for that

Here's what airlines now charge for these amenities on domestic coach flights:

BEVERAGES

Monster Energy drinks - $3 (Southwest Airlines)

VitaminWater drinks - free (AirTran); $3 (Delta Air Lines)

Beer, wine and alcoholic cocktails - $4 (Southwest Airlines); $5 (Delta, United, US Airways, American Airlines) $6 (AirTran Airways)

MEALS

Snack boxes and sandwiches range from $3-$8 (Delta, United, US Airways, American)

Continental Airlines is the sole major U.S. carrier to still offer complimentary snacks (2+ hour flights) and meals (3+ hour flights)

No sandwiches or meals available on Southwest or AirTran

CHECKING BAGS

Second bag - $10 (AirTran); $25 (American Airlines, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways)

Southwest charges starting with third bag - $25

SEAT ASSIGNMENTS

Exit row extra legroom - $20 (AirTran); $5 to $35 (Northwest Airlines)

Window, aisle seats in front of plane - $5 to $30 (US Airways)

Reserving seat number in advance online - $6 (AirTran)

Business Select early boarding - $10 to $30 more than highest fare (Southwest)

UNACCOMPANIED CHILDREN (nonstop flights)

$100 (Delta, US Airways); $99 (United); $75 (American, Continental); $75-$120 (Northwest)

$39 (AirTran)

free (Southwest)

CURBSIDE CHECK-IN

$3 per bag (Delta)

$2 per bag (Delta, United, US Airways, American, Northwest)

Free (Southwest and AirTran)

HEADPHONES

$5 (US Airways)

Free on United, AirTran

No in-flight entertainment (Southwest)

PETS

$65 one-way for small pets in a carrier that fits under the seat (AirTran)

$100 for small pets in cabin to North American locations (Delta, US Airways and United); $95 (Continental); $80 (American, Northwest)

Southwest doesn't allow pets to be brought on-board or stored as cargo

[Laura McCandlish]

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