Airline Fees: What’s Reasonable?

Chuck Shumer wants to force airlines to let families sit together for free.

Researching an entirely different issue, I stumbled on an Atlantic piece from a few days ago titled, “How to Tell a Dumb Airline Fee From an Immoral One.” The subtitle: “Dear airlines: parents and kids should really be able to sit together for free.”

Having flown quite a bit over the last three-and-a-half years on multiple airlines with my oldest daughter and, now, with both of my daughters, I was completely unaware that there was a fee for parents and kids to sit together. For good reason: there isn’t.

America’s airlines have stumbled into yet another controversy over the extra fees they charge travelers, and this one’s a bit of a doozy. As both the Associated Press and Reuters have recently pointed out, many carriers are now essentially forcing parents to pay more in order to sit with their children on flights.

“Essentially” does a lot of work here. What’s actually happening is that airlines are increasingly charging more for their more desirable seats. In addition to premiums for First Class and Business Class, which have been standard for decades, airlines now charge “upgrade” fees for bulkhead rows (which offer extra legroom) or to seat closer to the front of the plane (which means earlier boarding and thus makes it more likely that there will be room in the overhead for your roller bag). Aisle and window seats are, in some cases, also slightly more expensive.

So, a family that wants to sit together in the same row either has to book early, sit further back in the plane, or pay extra for aisle and window seats. Just like everyone else. So, what’s the problem? According to Reuters:

Jamie Bartosch of Arlington Heights, Illinois, says she and her family were on a recent flight from Grand Cayman Island, where they were in the cramped back row for five hours because they didn’t pay the $39 per seat upgrade fee. Meanwhile, other seats sat empty.

All these fees, says Bartosch, who writes a travel blog on TravelingMom.com, have had an impact on families. “To me, all of these fees unfairly hurt family travelers, because it’s nearly impossible to travel with kids and put everything into one carry-on. So we are basically forced to pay the luggage fees. To travel comfortably, with food and legroom, now adds at least another $100…Traveling by air is so unpleasant these days, unless you’re a first-class business traveler.”

Hey, that’s me! When I flew to Orlando a couple weeks back to take my oldest to Disney, I paid $25 to check our large duffel bag, another $2 for the privilege of checking it curbside rather than standing in line, and we sat in Zone 4 rather than pay $50 or so to sit in a better row.

Now, I happen to think that charging for a single checked bag is chintzy. Especially now that security regulations conspire to force us to either check bags or leave behind things that we need for a long trip but aren’t allowed in carry-on luggage. But it’s only discriminatory against families in a very roundabout way.

Further, I fully agree with Bartosch that flying is miserable these days. The combination of the delays and indignities of airport security theater, cutbacks in service, cramped quarters, rude waitstaff, and incessant delays on the tarmac make me willing to drive further and further to avoid flying. And, with two kids, the cost factor is there, too, since the marginal cost per traveler goes way down when driving.

On the other hand, I have zero problem with charging extra for more desirable seats. Indeed, I always tried to grab an aisle seat in bulkhead back in the days when that wasn’t more expensive in order to get a bit more leg and elbow room. And everyone knows that the middle seat sucks.* So, why shouldn’t the airlines price accordingly?

Additionally, while the airlines clearly cater to more lucrative business travelers, they actually accommodate families in important ways. For example, one can side-check a stroller or check it in the cargo hold for free.   And most still allow families with small children to board early. (United, oddly, recently stopped this, as I learned on my Orlando flight.)

Senator Chuck Shumer is actually pushing legislation that would force airlines to seat families together without additional fees. That seems not only unreasonable but likely to backfire; they’ll simply raise prices across the board to make up the difference, hurting those traveling alone without helping families.

It seems to me that there are other issues with airlines far more deserving of government oversight. For example, the reason aisle and bulkhead seats can command extra money is that the other seats are simply too small to comfortably fit the modern American man.  At a little over 6’1″ and 200 pounds, I’m neither freakishly tall nor morbidly obese; and yet I’m miserable on a coach flight of any duration. Additionally, something really needs to be done about the increasingly common practice of boarding a plane, taxiing out to the tarmac, and then keeping the passengers hostage for an hour or more before actually taking off. Especially given the aforementioned crowding issues.

To me, those are far more problematic than charging a measly $39 extra for an aisle seat to someone who can afford to take their family to Grand Cayman for a vacation.

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* Indeed, when my late wife and I traveled together and on my recent trip with my daughter, I always book an aisle and a window seat in the same row, knowing that the middle seat is the last to fill and hoping to thereby luck out and get the row to ourselves. When it doesn’t work out, people are invariably happy to trade their middle seat for a window seat.

FILED UNDER: General,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Rob in CT says:

    I’m with you. This is a bad idea. Mostly it’s a pointless waste of governmental effort. Most likely driven by Chuck Schumer’s (D-Wall St.) desire to be seen as doing something for the middle class schmoe. When, of course, there are far better things that could be done for said schmoe.

    Hey, isn’t Chuck Schumer the same guy who was fired up about scammers calling people’s cell phones (that is, after he got one such call himself)? While I do find those annoying, way to stay on top of the important stuff, Chuck.




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  2. al-Ameda says:

    Bad idea, period.

    I’m tired of families with kids, who jerk the seat back and forth for 10-15 minutes while mom ignores the brat. Why not a law that requires those kids to be strapped straight-jacket style into seats for the duration of the trip? That kind of regulation would be more beneficial that requiring families to be seated together.




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  3. Mikey says:

    @Rob in CT: Schumer’s a great example of someone who makes a lot of noise about trivialities in order to mask how badly he deals with what’s actually important.




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  4. rodney dill says:

    The last few times I’ve flown, (Delta and Lufthansa) I was able to pick my seats online as I bought my tickets. (economy class, I’m too cheap to fly better when I’m footing the bill) It would only be a problem if adjacent seats weren’t available. Would they legislate moving people that already have a seat selection to accommodate families?




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  5. al-Ameda says:

    @rodney dill:

    Would they legislate moving people that already have a seat selection to accommodate families?

    I would hope not, right?

    Airline pricing and seating, unless you go first class – is completely free market and auction based. The chances are that the person sitting next to you paid a different price than you did. Most people are used to it, I know I am.




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  6. Jeremy says:

    My problem with flying is that I’m 6′ 2″. That’s a real pain. It’s made even worse when in front of me, there’s a seat next to the emergency door, and some 3′ twerp is sitting in that. That infuriates me; I mean, thrombosis, anyone?

    I have no problem with airlines charging more for seats with more legroom. That’s what they should do, as the higher price reflects the higher demand. But by the love of god, they should not be putting children in those spaces, dammit.

    [/endrant]




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  7. Franklin says:

    Not necessary. The people flying third-class are generally pretty nice about swapping seats, probably because they don’t want to sit next to your 3-year-old by themselves.




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  8. mannning says:

    One of the pleasures of flying for me was that my companies afforded me either first class or business class most of the time, with one sterling exception: a flight from Dulles to Bremen, an 8 hour fight in a crowded 767 with rear-end seats. Never again! People that are the approximate size of James or myself, 6″2″ and 195 lb, do not fit well in those seats, and end up with cramps and sore spots in odd places.

    In many years, I logged a much as 50,000 miles flying all over Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and back to the US. I counted 50 crossings of the Atlantic before I retired. Since retirement, my travels have tapered off drastically, so I have missed the pains of flying for the past five years or so.

    The “five and ten cent” fees for such previously free things as a pillow or blanket, and the really exorbitant fees for baggage, plus the elimination of decent meals in tourist class, make flying something to endure rather than to enjoy. Now to pay extra for the only decent seats–aisle or window–a sum of near $ 40 is shocking, but hard to refuse! That is a big gotcha! No one can be comfortable in a middle seat—ever! But, my retirement budget will not let me escape to first or business class.

    So we fly less and drive more when we can. If most retirees do the same, the airlines will feel the decline in traffic, and hence raise fees and ticket prices even further.




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  9. J-Dub says:

    I always try to fly Southwest. Low fares and no extra charges. Even a 50lb golf bag flies for free. They are also very accommodating. I once missed a connecting flight out of Midway due to my own fault and they rebooked me through Hartford to BWI for free, an extra flight with no charge whatsoever. My last trip to SF on United was awful.




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  10. rodney dill says:

    @al-Ameda:

    Why not a law that requires those kids to be strapped straight-jacket style into seats for the duration of the trip?

    It does seem a little draconian… but yea, I hate when that happens too.




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  11. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Schumer obviously needs a remedial course in economics.

    Regarding the airline industry, as a whole, nobody ever said there wouldn’t be any drawbacks to deregulation. Crappy seats and the sardine treatment are among those drawbacks. Then again, back in the loopy days of Braniff, Eastern and Pan Am, et al., if you needed to get from Point A to Point B on very short notice you were SOL, whereas now there likely are multiple airlines offering multiple flights at cheap prices. Ergo I prefer to see the airline industry glass as being half full.




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  12. EMRVentures says:

    The miseries of airline travel have made me a faithful Amtrak customer. I know trains don’t really work well in a lot of places, but here in the WANYBOS corridor, it beats the heck out of flying. If I’m going to Boston or DC/Baltimore, it may cost a little more and maybe even take more time door-to-door, but it’s comfortable, it’s generally quiet, the seat is big and soft, there’s wi-fi, it’s usually on time or close to it, your luggage doesn’t get lost, there’s no silly restrictions on what you can bring on board. I could go on.

    On Amtrak, I can get up and wander around or go buy a snack and a beverage if I like (Dogfish Head IPA on Amtrak is an inspired idea). And, frankly, the scenery is nice. Amtrak through much of Connecticut is lovely, beautiful in places. Even if it takes a little more time, I always feel so much better when I arrive somewhere by train than when I do by air.




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  13. James Joyner says:

    @EMRVentures: I think the DC-New York-Boston corridor probably represents the ideal type and outer limits of that approach. There are tons of trains, they’re relatively cheap, and the distances relatively short. I’ve done DC-NY on the Acela a few times and, while not exactly luxurious, it beats flying. Of course, Acela is the Amtrak equivalent of First Class air travel.




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  14. Mikey says:

    @EMRVentures: I traveled Amtrak from DC to New York once for business. Actual travel time is of course longer than by air, but when you figure in the extra time at airports for security theater and whatnot, it’s pretty much a wash for that trip. My experience was pretty much the same as yours, and it was really nice being able to get up and walk to the bar car for a drink. Just being able to get up and take a walk for more than 20 seconds was fantastic.

    One thing I noticed was when I was on my way to NY Monday morning, a bunch of people got on in Philly, and when I was headed back to DC on Friday evening, the same people got on in NY and proceeded to have a full-on party. I realized all of them would be getting off the train in Philly…and into their cars at the train station…and driving home…absolutely crocked, every one of them. But it was a lot of fun hanging out.




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  15. The english language needs a word for when there’s a difference between what people say their preferences are and what preferences are revealed to be by their behavior. The airline industry is perhaps the biggest example of this. As much as people say they want better flying conditions, their behavior has made it abundantly clear that price, price, and price are the only thing that impacts their decisions. Airlines have turned into flying Greyhound busses because that’s the only thing the public will pay for.




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  16. PD Shaw says:

    We flew the kids to DisneyWorld last year on Southwest and paid extra to get advanced seating. There was a little anxiety that it was theoretically possible that boarding earlier might not be enough to ensure we sat together (particularly on a flight full of families), but it was fine. Flying Southwest was otherwise worth it in terns of cost, flights avaiable, and being on-time. Some of the other airlines, not so much.




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  17. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: There’s a lot to this. Still, the choices are rather stark: either pay a ridiculous amount of money for First Class or fly cattle car style. It’s not as if there are airlines that offer a much better experience for a modest price difference.

    I make a decent living and can’t justify paying twice as much for First Class. I used to fly it quite a bit, using upgrade miles, but no longer fly enough to have that luxury–especially since I now have to pay for two tickets and, a year from now, three.




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  18. @James Joyner:

    It’s not as if there are airlines that offer a much better experience for a modest price difference.

    Several airlines have tried (Frontier, Midwest, etc.), and they’ve all gone bankrupt or abandoned it. There’s simply is not enough of a market of people willing to pay even $50 more for a better flight experience in coach.




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  19. EMRVentures says:

    @Mikey: Glad your experience was good as well. Unfortunately, as has been mentioned, trains don’t work well in most places — as a New Jersey resident with both family and business in DC/Baltimore and Boston, I’m probably about the perfect customer. Few people are liable to be served as well by Amtrak as I am. I’ve always found it was a wash or worse timewise when you take in full door-to-door, but it’s a damn sight better than going through the wringer of Newark-to-Logan.

    The same goes for driving — I can do Boston in a little over four hours, and I’m no speeder, but that’s only IF I have the luxury of traveling off-hours. On a Friday, or god forbid returning on a Sunday in the summer from Boston, it can be six. Nothing will make you crazy like sitting at the Sturbridge exit on the Mass Pike waiting to get onto Route 84 on a Sunday evening. Put me on a train, I don’t care if it takes eight hours, because I’ll be reading a book or sleeping or commenting on silly websites.

    As for the detraining after drinking, I think that’s a hazard with any form of transportation — there are certainly a lot of nervous flyers who get themselves loaded or doped up to fly and then have to make their way home from the airport.




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  20. Rob in CT says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Yeah. The fact is that I shop on price alone, assuming that the “service” will suck about equally.

    I think it’s hard to convince people that your service is actually better. While you’re trying to do that, your competition is killing you b/c of their lower fares.

    If I really believed my travel experience would be noticeably better, I would pay more, particularly for a long flight. But a lot of it isn’t even the airlines themselves – it’s getting to/from the airports and dealing with the TSA nonsense. But then I’m short, so at least legroom isn’t a serious issue.




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  21. EMRVentures says:

    @James Joyner: Agreed. You and I are Amtrak’s ideal customers. There’s few other places Amtrak can offer the value they do in WASH-NY-BOS.

    As for “not exactly luxurious”, I do indeed find Acela luxurious, when compared to a similar $125 seat in coach on an airplane. I’m nowhere near as tall as you, and I hate traveling in those crappy tiny seats, particularly when the person in front of you reclines all the way, or the person behind you is a seat-knocker.




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  22. Mikey says:

    @EMRVentures: Driving DC to NYC can be a real nightmare, and more so if continuing to a destination on Long Island. We’ve driven a few times, taken the train once, and we flew for our most recent trip.

    IMHO, the DC-NY-BOS corridor is about the only place in the country where inter-city passenger rail really makes sense. Even LA-SF will probably be a financial sinkhole, assuming it ever gets built at all.




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  23. EMRVentures says:

    @Mikey: Oh yeah, I’ve had that experience. The day is going good, you’re cruising, through Exit 10, 9, past the Joyce Kilmer Rest Area, heading towards Clara Barton and Richard Stockton, and then the Jersey Turnpike starts narrowing from eight lanes down to two around exit 7A, and all of a sudden you’re stopped, and thinking “If I were on a train, I’d be playing Angry Birds and sipping an IPA right now, instead I’m behind a trailer truck in stop-and-go on the Turnpike, getting a farmer’s tan on my left arm. When will I learn?”




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  24. Just Me says:

    This is more feel good.

    I would agree that boarding a plane then sitting around waiting to take off is ridiculous. I would rather see them deal with that-which affects every passenger and can make a cramped seat even more cramped.

    Oh, and I hate the checked luggage fees, but don’t think the government should meddle in that.




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