Nov. 22--Holiday travelers who haven't been on an airplane in a while may be in for a surprise if they're flying this week. It's going to take some extra cash to get from the curb to the cabin.
Those little extras that fliers take for granted -- including curbside baggage check-in and in-flight meals -- aren't free anymore. And if your checked bags are too big or too heavy -- or you packed one suitcase too many -- expect to pay extra before boarding your flight.
Airline officials say they're trying to offset high fuel costs and low fares by charging for services that passengers want. But some experts think it's a way for struggling carriers to increase revenues.
"It's a money-maker," said Bob Jones, columnist for Onetravel.com. "You pay for everything."
That includes the convenience of checking in your bags at the curb. At San Francisco International Airport, for instance, American and United now charge $2 for each bag that is left with a skycap in front of the terminal. United and American -- along with Alaska and Horizon -- also charge $2 at Oakland International. At Mineta San Jose International, bags can still be checked at the curb for free. Of course, this is in addition to any tips for the skycaps.
But it's not likely to remain that way.
Tom Smith, a spokesman for American, said the airline has been testing charging for curbside baggage service since March.
"It appears to be going well from our standpoint and from the customers understanding it. It's something that could end up in other airports, including San Jose," said Smith.
The fees are small compared with charges that can be assessed for over-sized or overweight baggage. Penalties can range from $25 for a suitcase weighing more than 50 pounds to $100 for a bag over 62 linear inches (height plus width plus depth). If you check in more than the two bags allowed by most airlines, you'll have to pay $80 for each extra piece of luggage, depending on your carrier.
And don't expect agents at the ticket counter to budge.
"It's a policy that's in place for a number of reasons," said Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for US Airways and America West. "We need to accommodate all of our passengers, but it's also for our ground crew who are loading the bags. We're seeing a lot more leisure travelers with a lot of bags, particularly during the holiday season. Our ground crew has to handle all those bags, and that's a lot of work."
But it doesn't mean that airline personnel won't work with fliers to avoid paying, said Anthony Black, a spokesman for Delta.
"It's important to make sure that you don't come to the airport with overweight bags," Black said. "But if you do, our folks will try to help to see if you can shift the weight in your bags, to distribute it so you don't incur the cost.
"It's important to get to the airport early. When people travel late, they're always rushing to get through security and get to their gate. If you give yourself a little more time, any of the little things that go wrong can be handled."
Once you make it onto the plane, don't expect a free meal, either. You'll still get a soft drink and a bag of peanuts or pretzels at no charge, but many airlines now are offering meals and snacks for sale to their economy passengers on domestic flights.
On American flights lasting more than three hours, for instance, passengers can purchase snack boxes for $3; on United, similar meals cost $5 on flights 2 1/2 hours or longer. But they're not gourmet selections: Meals can be anything from salads and sandwiches to candy bars and cheese and crackers.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd say most of it is a 4," said Terry Trippler, airline analyst at Cheapseats.com. "When it comes to airline meals, you're there, you're strapped in, you eat it. If you were in a restaurant, you'd send it back."
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.
Last-minute fliers are getting shut out before they reach their departure gate as airports step up their enforcement of stated check-in times.
By mid-March the airline will start charging $2 per bag to check travelers outside the terminal.
Random secondary screenings were dropped in 2003 because they were deemed too much of a hassle.