Customers are paying less for airfare but overall more to travel because of fees airlines charge for optional services, that were once included in the ticket price.
Some of the complaints customers make are being unaware of fees until they arrive at the airport, having to pay for once complimentary amenities and the frustration of booking plane tickets when fees vary from airline to airline.
“They’re going to get charged for everything, sometimes even up to hot water,” said Jason Villacres, a travel agent from Circe Travel with a touch of hyperbole.
Despite fees travelers pay in addition to their flight, air travel is historically low and has been trending downward from 3 years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Between the two-year period, from 2014 to 2016 fares fell 14.4 percent. According to the most recent report on airfare data by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BOT), average airfare costs have decreased by 8.8 percent from 2015, not accounting for airline ancillary fees.
Part of the reason for the decline is the expansion of ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit Airlines. Major carriers have responded with their own lower fares.
“With the new basic economy because you can’t choose a seat ahead of time or check-in luggage,” you are paying more for travel, said George Gonzalez, 36, a frequent flyer.
However, with cheaper airline fees, people still don’t feel the prices are cheap.
In recent years, airlines have generated additional revenue from airline fees. A quarter of profits from U.S. passenger airlines accounted for fees, contributing to 25.3 percent of income, according to BOT. Most passengers are unaware of fees until they arrive at the airport because airlines are not required by the Department of Transportation (DOT) to list fees forthright.
“There have been fees to check luggage for some time, but now airlines charge for pre-assigned seating,” up until patrons arrive to the airport or prior to the flight, said Tiffany Harris, a communications director at STA Travel, a travel agency.
A recent study by the fare casting app Hopper Research shows airlines offer lower fares for travelers but charge for almost all amenities. By airlines “unbundling” their flights, travelers pay for everything, from baggage, blankets, in-flight entertainment, to food and, even seat assignments.
Passengers have noticed fees for some time, according to George Hobica, the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com in a New York Times article. The fees that bother customers the most is the change flight fee, which can average almost $200.
Median fares for a base ticket with American Airlines and United Airlines can easily start at $496 to $525. When domestic airline changes and baggage fees are added in addition to airfare, travelers can end up paying between $780 to $809.
The DOT wants airlines to list their ancillary fees upfront. However, in the meantime travelers will have to make the best choices according to their budget.
“As a traveler, this can lead to a lot of confusion and frustration,” said Hopper’s Research Scientist Patrick Surry in a study.
On average, ten percent of the revenue generated by airlines is from fees, according to Hopper.
“It’s not a major share of profit but it is very profitable,” said Joseph DeNardi, an analyst for American Airlines.
Customers looking for cheaper rates may decide to fly with a low-cost carrier but could end up paying the same prices as if they’ve flown with a legacy airline, or even more.
Low-cost carriers offer significantly cheaper tickets than legacy airlines but, “have a lot of ancillary fees with their product,” said Harris.
The low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines offers some of the cheapest base fares but charge some of the highest fees for baggage, $50 for the first bag and $111 for the second, and $250 to change flights.
“Customers really wouldn’t be paying more for optional services and luggage to travel with legacy airlines,” compared to low-cost carriers, said Harris.
Villacres said the few times he had a client request a flight with a low-cost carrier, they don’t request it again because of the hassle with fees, etc.
Customers have taken to sites like consumeraffairs.com to voice their complaints about exorbitant airline fees.
Karen of Wylie, Texas rated Delta Air Lines one star and voiced her dissatisfaction with the airline because her daughter was involuntarily bumped off a flight they booked two months in advance for a school trip.
“Apparently because they expect you to pay that extra $20-30 to book an actual seat… or face the wrath of overbooking,” she said.
However, customers could start paying more for airfare with consistent ticket increases starting in January 2017, according to BLS.
“I haven’t noticed an astronomical increase, but I’ve heard passengers say the prices are going up,” said Tiye Sheppard, a ticketing agent for Delta Air Lines. “I think they’re referring to the overall cost of travel. You pay for your ticket, your bag, extra legroom, food on board and so on.”
With no end in sight to the fees charged by airlines, customers will have to adjust.
“Passengers have the advantage though, there are a ton of credit cards, loyalty programs and offers that make travel more affordable,” said Sheppard.