Extra Airline Charges Lighten Fliers' Wallets

Forking over for airline meals was just the beginning. Paying a la carte for everything from a choice seat to a checked bag is a trend that's taking off.

Fees for services and amenities that used to be free are proliferating as airlines seek ways to cover higher operating costs and increase revenue without sending ticket prices soaring.

This month, American Eagle is charging $1 for soda, $1 for cashews and $5 for a pillow-and-blanket kit on California flights in and out of Los Angeles. It's a test of the hypothesis that fliers want lower ticket prices more than complimentary items, says American Eagle spokesman Dave Jackson. "We're testing to see if free sodas are something they value." If so, American Eagle will keep free soda systemwide.

Other freebies are flying away, too:

*American, Northwest, United and Alaska Airlines charge $2 for each bag checked at the curb at some airports (it's still free in the terminal).

*American, Delta and Northwest have plucked pillows from most domestic flights. Air Canada is selling a $2 kit with a blanket and inflatable pillow.

*Most airlines now charge for booking via telephone instead of on their websites. $10 is typical.

*Want an advance seat assignment on Allegiant Air? It'll set you back $10 a flight segment. Virgin Atlantic sells choice exit-row seats for $75 each way between the USA and London.

The January issue of Consumer Reports showed how fees add up. It took a $283.40 United Chicago-San Diego round-trip that cost $236 more when charges for booking on the phone ($10), curbside bag check-in ($6), snack boxes ($10), an overweight bag ($50) and extra checked bag ($160) were added.

"We think this is nickel-and-diming," says Lisa Lee Freeman, Consumer Reports travel editor. Airline fees are "a sneaky way of raising prices and particularly irksome when you think of all the freebies you used to get. I don't think people realize how much (fees) can add to the price of a trip."

Virgin Atlantic is among the dwindling number of carriers that don't charge for meals, alcohol, movies or amenity kits in economy class. "Passengers like it," says Virgin spokeswoman Brooke Lawer.

But airline expert Terry Trippler of the CheapSeats.com travel website sees more fees to come. "It's only the beginning." He says U.S. airlines will emulate some low-cost European carriers and charge for all checked bags, maybe even carry-ons and bottled water.

Britain-based Flybe is cutting fares for those who don't check luggage and charging $3.50-$7 for checked bags starting in February. Flybe CEO Jim French called the move a way of having fliers pay only for services used.

What's next? Charging travelers according to what they weigh, Trippler quips. "We may get to that someday. The way things are going, you never know."

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