I’ve been mostly quiet about airlines’ fees. Yes, I have said that we need to address the policy questions raised by airlines’ increased reliance on them: less money in the aviation trust fund and longer security lines caused by people checking fewer bags. But, I’ve said that we have a de-regulated industry, that if the airlines want to unbundle fares and charge these fees, and people are willing to pay them, then it is their right to do so.
But, two recent developments have gotten under my skin:
First, the news that airlines made $21 billion in various fees last year. Fine. But then they argue that their average fares remain “low” and that they don’t have “pricing power,” and they are hurting financially and we can’t build any infrastructure because the real purpose of air transportation is airline profits (OK, I made that last one up, sort of, but what they say adds up to exactly what I said).
These are arguments they use against airports looking for just a little bit of economic freedom to charge their own user fee to build infrastructure (if you look at airline executive pay packages and bonus programs you can get an idea where many of those airline fee dollars are going; airports can’t do that — all of our fees go into infrastructure and services). Airlines like to say that the average ticket is something just over $300 (I wish I could find a ticket that cheap, I fly a lot and have paid that little only once this year). But then they collect all these fees, billions worth. They are not being honest. The average fare is not something just over $300; it is much more when you add the fees in.
Again, I have defended their right to price their products that way, all I ask is a little honesty on their part.
Then, I have started to hear airlines argue that the fees they charge are “voluntary” whereas an airport user fee is not. Horsepoop! Is bringing a bag on a vacation “voluntary?” Is wanting to have an assigned seat “voluntary?”
How about change fees? If your kid gets sick, is that “voluntary.” When my father in law passed away two years ago and I was on a business trip and had to change my flight I couldn’t get the change fee waived because I didn’t know the phone number of the hospital he was lying in!! Is that “voluntary?????” (Were they really going to call to find out if he was going to die???)
Airports have used the small user fee they can charge to build runways and taxiways (these are not voluntary, unless the laws of physics are altered they are needed). These fees have been used to build terminal facilities to attract new and competitive service. Is this voluntary? I guess it depends, if you are a legacy airline that hates competition (but you say you love free enterprise) then maybe it is. But, for passengers? Not so much. Airport fees have been used to improve safety and security and mitigate environmental impacts. Are these voluntary? I’d like to see you make that argument.
A CEO of General Motors once said “what is good for General Motors is good for the United States of America.” Airlines seem to believe what is good for the airlines is the sum total of what is good for air travelers. These are the folks who treated air travelers so poorly for so long they basically dared the government to force them to provide water and bathrooms for passengers during delays. And, then they complained when the government followed through and issued a rule making them do just that.
I have never met an airport leader who wanted an airline to do poorly financially or, worse still, fold. I never met an airport leader who wanted to lose air service. We are all in this together. Most airline executives I have known feel the same way. But when they get together, they say, as Art Linkletter once said about kids, the darndest things!