Wednesday, December 15, 2010

906 Million Reasons

There are 964 million reasons why airlines in the United States - which pioneered added fees for everything from checking luggage, to changing reservations, to securing extra legroom - are unlikely to roll back those policies - or even, in some cases, fully disclose them in advance to air travelers.

That's how many dollars - $906.4 million to be more precise - the 20 leading U.S. carriers earned in revenue in the third quarter of 2010 just by charging for checked bags. Only Southwest Airlines, with its "Bags Fly Free'' policy, is bucking the trend.

In the first three quarters of this year, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation statistics cited in the Los Angeles Times, "The top carriers pocketed $2.6 billion in baggage fees and $1.7 billion in fees to cancel or change reservations.''

Airlines are charging fees on top of basic air fares because most U.S. carrriers have lost money over most of the past decade, and consumers, accustomed to low fares from low-cost carriers, have resisted airlines' attempts to raise air fares, which once were all-inclusive. First-class, business-class and elite mileage plan members are typically exempt from such fees, but of course more people fly economy than travel at the front of the plane.

When we see the math, we also see it's highly unlikey that such lucrative fees will go away anytime soon.

Some air travel consumer groups are trying to get airlines to fully disclose all fees in advance - clearly and simply, not buried in the fine print of their contracts of carriage. The Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel planners, says failure to do so makes it very tough to know the real cost of air travel till it's too late and the money has been spent.

This push received an unexpected boost from a respected airline veteran and aviation wise man, former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall, last week. Speaking to the International Air Transport Association, which represents most of the world's airlines, Crandall put it this way:

''... the industry has objected to consumer efforts to display a complete list of ancillary charges in every distribution channel in which a carrier participates ... I think the industry courts unnecessary customer discontent and risks its good name and reputation by opposing a request entirely consistent with normal retail practice. We all need to recognise, I think, that operationally attractive positions that are inconsistent with customer welfare and satisfaction are, in the long run, likely to be detrimental to our individual and collective well-being.''

The title of Crandall's speech: "The Customer is the Focus of Everything.''

Sounds like common sense to me. If you have to charge fees to make a profit, charge fees. But at least let people know what they are, so they can plan their travel accordingly. This is Customer Service 101.

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