Airlines Pile On New Fees And Even More Charges Lie Ahead, Experts Say

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Buckle up, airline fees are going up again and some experts claim there’s no end in sight. In the U.S., some air passengers are even getting a little Christmas gift — an extra charge tied to the holiday season.

“Absolutely ridiculous,” says Toronto frequent flyer Lucy Rubin about the prospect of escalating fees. “As if they haven’t got enough money, these airlines. Do they really need more from us?”

Apparently they do, claims Calgary-based aviation consultant Rick Erickson. He says in an era when passengers are demanding bargain-basement fares, air carriers will continue to unveil extra charges to boost their bottom lines.

“Any time you want anything approaching comfort, convenience, or flexibility, you’re going to pay for it,” he says.

New fees set to land

For travel after Jan. 5, WestJet will start charging $25 for the first checked bag on international economy fare flights. Both the carrier and competitor Air Canada introduced the same fee for domestic flights last year.

WestJet will also charge economy and flex fare passengers an extra $10 for checking a second bag on any flight, upping the second bag fee to $35.

Charges to reserve roomier exit row seats on longer flights will also go up by $10 to $20.

Low cost carrier, Sunwing will still be letting passengers check a bag for free on its international flights and is even upping the weight limit. But the airline will start charging domestic and U.S-bound passengers for previously complimentary meals and drinks starting Jan. 5.

In the U.S., carriers are taking it one step further. In a grinch-like move, Spirit and Frontier Airlines will hike checked luggage charges during the peak travel holiday season.

Will fee fad ever stop?

Erickson says don’t be surprised if Canadian airlines also introduce holiday-inspired fees.

“They’re looking to add as much revenue as they possibly can and from whatever source,” says the airline analyst. “So we’re seeing things we’ve never seen in the past, I mean, charging for pillows, charging for blankets.”

WestJet pulled in a record $101.8-million profit in its third quarter. Ancillary fees alone earned the company $90.5 million, up 76.3 per cent from the same quarter last year.

Air Canada also reported healthy profits that beat expectations. CEO Calin Rovinescu told CBC News earlier this year that added fees are now an indispensable part of airlines’ profits.

Air Canada, however, says it’s not looking to follow WestJet’s lead on charging for a first checked bag on transatlantic flights. “We have no current plans to institute such a charge for competitive reasons,” spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick told CBC News in an email.

But air passenger advocate Gabor Lukacs suspects the carrier will eventually follow suit. “It’s a trend,” he says as airlines continue to unbundle their offerings in a pay per service model.

Pick and pay

WestJet is adding more fees “in an effort to keep fares low,” spokesman Robert Palmer told CBC News in an email. He explains the user-pay, unbundled approach “allows our guests the opportunity to purchase only those products or services they want.”

But Lukacs, who lives in Halifax, takes issue with charging for a checked bag on international flights. He argues many passengers find they need to pack more for longer trips.

“If we’re talking about a very high percentage [checking luggage], then clearly we can say this is deceptive,” says Lukacs about the optional charge because, for many international passengers, it’s not a service they can opt out of.

“Typically, if you’re going to somewhere internationally, you’re going for more than a weekend. So generally that [checked bag] should be included,” says avid traveller Sarah Minhas, interviewed at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.

WestJet would not tell CBC News how many passengers on international flights check luggage. But Palmer says three out of every four of its customers are exempt from the first checked bag fee because they’re part of a rewards program or purchase a fare that excludes the charge.

What can you do?

Steve Simpson wasn’t exempt from paying a fee to check his bag on a flight from Toronto to his home in Thunder Bay this week.

“I think I hate them about the same amount as everyone else does,” he says about added fees, which he believes turns airline tickets into pricey purchases.

Although Canadians like to grumble about it, analyst Erickson predicts the charges will keep on coming unless there’s real demand for change.

“At what point do we finally say, enough is enough? he asks. “There’s lo and behold type feelings on the part of customers from the moment those [fee] announcements are made. They generally only last for just a couple of months,” he says and then passengers accept the charges.

In the U.S., there are small signs of a revolt. A recent Senate commerce committee report took aim at U.S. airline fees, claiming they “are are increasingly keeping consumers in the dark about the true cost of air travel.”

Congressman John Mica has introduced legislation that would cap airline checked baggage charges at $4.50 US.

But passenger rights activist Lukacs believes the best solution for Canadians would be more competition. He says if Canada created an environment where more carriers could thrive, it would help drive prices down.

“Airlines will charge us various fees because there’s no sufficient competition,” he claims.

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