Airline Surcharges: Pay to Pee?

Quentin Letts informs me that Ryanair, an Irish no-frills outfit of which I’d never previously heard, is contemplating charging passengers a fee to use the toilet.

That is how it manages to charge such low basic fares for its flights. What they give you in discounted tickets, they try to claw back in the way of incidentals, from pay-per-bag luggage rates to preferential boarding deals and in-flight trinkets.

Want to pay by credit card? That’ll be extra. Want to check in at the airport with a real human being? It’ll cost ya. Insurance gets whacked on the price of your ticket at the blink of an eyelid. Booking a Ryanair ticket online is like a steeplechase, each jump being another grab for money.

The moment you step on one of Ryanair’s gaudily decorated aircraft, with their plastic yellow seat tops and their first-on-board-wins seating policy, you are bombarded with advertisements for car hire, aftershave, hot chocolate, sandwiches and so forth. It is not unlike visiting a Middle Eastern bazaar and being pestered for baksheesh by a wall-eyed leper.

And all this is before the stewardesses come trawling through the cabin with their trolleys of comestibles and gift ware. “You wanna buy, meester? Very good rates. Yessss.” It’s worse than the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakesh.


Imagine taking your wife and children on a flight where they had to pay to use the khazi. Knowing my brood, we’d be skint before we reached our destination. Human nature dictates that when you’re told you can’t go, it makes you want to go all the more, and modern air passengers seldom seem able to last a two-hour flight without answering a call of nature.

Glenn Reynolds is less good humored about the matter, observing that, “The plethora of nuisance charges being added to air travel just means that when you shop ticket price, you’re shopping a deceptive number. Airlines push that down as far as they can, then try to make the money back with other items they hope you won’t really notice.”

Quite so.  Still, one can’t really blame the airlines.  Well, not entirely anyway.

A couple years ago, my wife and I were on vacation and having cocktails in the hotel lounge with a retired airline pilot who was now doing private charter flights for the well-to-do.  I noted the serious decline in pleasantness of the airline experience even within my relatively short memory and he said that this is what the traveling customer had demanded.

When flying was a luxury affordable by only the wealthy or, as was the case when I flew as a kid, those for whom the company (in our case, the United States Army) was paying for the tickets, service was king and airlines who treated their customers well were rewarded with loyalty. Over the last quarter century or so, though, flying became affordable to the masses while being transformed into a commodity service.  Most customers shop exclusively by price and will take the ticket that’s $20 cheaper regardless of carrier.  Airlines that tried to attract customers with service were quickly abandoned in this environment, creating a race to the bottom, with amenities stripped away and more seats packed into the cabin.

That’s not the whole story, of course.  On many routes, one or at most two carriers dominate because they’ve essentially rented all the gate space at the airports.  WIthout competition, there’s no incentive for service.  But, even with competition, most people would go with the cheapest fare.

Photo by Flickr user Shamrock350 under Creative Commons license.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Environment, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:

    The guys could sneak a leak in the barf bag…as for the ladies….

  2. Anderson says:

    If there’s not already a federal regulation requiring the provision of free bathrooms to air passengers, it should be no great trouble to enact one.

    (Nanny state! Nanny state!)

  3. DC Loser says:

    James, I thought you were a man of the world. Ryanair is famous (or infamous) in the world of discount travel is the leader of no-frills cost cutting airtravel in Europe. I believe they were scheduled to begin service to North America this year. They offer incredibly low fares (some as low as $1), but everything else costs (luggage, food, etc., but then again US airlines are adopting that model). It won’t be long before we see pay toilets on US planes.

  4. Bithead says:

    Well, Anderson, look;

    You could always find another mode of transportion. And trust me, people would, given a free market. You’d be amazed how quickly air travel would drop off. My BS threshold in my travels already has me not flying for a little over a decade, now. What other peoples’s threshold for staying off planes is, I can’t say exactly, but I’m willing to bet this would cover a lot of them.

    Else, you could treat it like any other pay toilet.. and crawl under. Ummm crawl under the plane, I mean.

    (Ya know, timing jokes don’t work as well in print)

  5. James Joyner says:

    Ryanair is famous (or infamous) in the world of discount travel is the leader of no-frills cost cutting airtravel in Europe

    The only intra-Europe flying I’ve done is connection flights I’ve books from the US. But I’d be happy to get a cheap pay-as-you-go [ha!] flight for what would amount to a short commuter hop.

  6. Anderson says:

    It won’t be long before we see pay toilets on US planes.

    I don’t think so. Americans will revolt first, and it’s a good bet that a revolt on this subject will be, well, revolting.

    After Ryanair gets a few seats saturated in urine, they’ll rethink their policy too.

  7. John Burgess says:

    If nothing else, Ryan Air led to the creation of discount airlines across Europe. Instead of paying $500 or more to fly from London to Rome (a distance surprisingly shorter than London to Edinburgh!), you could fly for under $100, round-trip on Ryan Air competitor Go! airlines (a BA spinoff). Ryan Air is promising 10-Euro fares to the US by the end of this year. So long as it’s not standing-room only, I can put up with a lot of suffering for a $20 trans-Atlantic fare. Even if it means negotiating Stanstead Airport.

    I travel fairly often up to DC from my SW Florida location. US Airways has direct flights to DCA, which is awfully convenient for me. Travel time in the air is about two-and-a-half hours. Fares are sometimes very good–right now, <$90, minus fees and taxes, plus $15 for a checked bag. Including taxi fares to/from airports, it’s around $220 for the trip. Sometimes, though, they can run over $600.

    I can drive the 990 miles for less than the low fare, even with gas at $2.00/gal. Of course, it’s a 15-hour drive, but that’s not all that hard, even driving alone. The last few times I’ve done the drive (as recently as last week), the round-trip was <$200.

  8. Eneils Bailey says:

    Don’t like a surcharge for for using those 2 feet by 2 feet shitters on a plane.

    I used to fly round trip across the country from Atlanta to San Francisco about once a month.

    So, you no longer like the services and courtesies.
    If you don’t, get in your family car, drive across the country and piss in a Burger King cup and throw it out the window every few hundred miles.

    Airlines are doing nothing more than than putting a coin box on the stalls at The East Bay Terminal in San Francisco, back in the sixties.

    I have read the Constitution, no where in it did I find the “Right to Piss.”

  9. This isn’t a rights issue and shouldn’t be turned into one. It is about customer service and convenience. When an airline stops treating its customers as customers they shouldn’t be surprised when the customers stop treating them as a vendor.

    Remember the People Express cheap air fares about 25 years ago? I flew it once when I didn’t have much money and decided I would drive or not go henceforth rather than fly People Express again. Flying is uncomfortable enough without intentionally trying to make it worse.

  10. Eneils Bailey says:

    When an airline stops treating its customers as customers they shouldn’t be surprised when the customers stop treating them as a vendor.

    Yeah, and you are exactly right…Don’t like the way they treat you… choose another airline…or drive your car.
    That’s my point.

  11. Eneils Bailey says:


    Welcome abroad, Curly,

    Do you know anything about flying a plane?

  12. Jim says:

    I think the primary problem is not that these surcharges exist but that they are not sufficiently documented (i.e. luggage fees, food fees, etc). If Travelocity listed all these various add-ons before you actually purchase a flight, you might see a change.

    In an aside – as a father of a 8 year-old in the last decade, toys that used to not include batteries now have the batteries included despite the cost of adding these batteries since it helps the gift purchaser. Now the gas is cheaper, I have a feeling that those airlines which include all the fees in the tickets will see a big uptick.