published Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Airline fees befuddle fliers

Tom and Melanie Villegas like flying AllegiantAir, but they’re wary when booking tickets from the discount airline that flies between Chattanooga and Florida.

When they’re nearly through buying their tickets online, it seems there are about $100 in fees added, they said at Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport last week. “You’ve got to backtrack,” he said, noting they deduct fees for services for which they don’t want to pay. “You’ve got to be conscious.”

More and more, airlines are adding fees as carriers try to maximize revenue and grapple with rising jet fuel prices.

Worldwide, ancilliary revenue for airlines rose in 2010 to $22.6 billion, up from $13.5 billion the year before, according to IdeaWorks.

While most airlines charge to check bags, carriers also are offering and charging for an array of a la carte services ranging from picking a seat and loading the plane early to paying for Wi-Fi during the flight.

Mike Landguth, the Chattanooga airport’s president, said leisure travelers likely are more affected by fees than business people, who may fly frequently and are aware of them. But the airlines are practicing what other industry sectors such as hotels do, he said.

“They’ve gone to a fee-based application,” he said. “It lets consumers pick what they want to do.”

Sabrina LoPiccolo, an Allegiant spokeswoman, said the carrier offers customers the chance to pick and choose what they value.

“We start with a base fare,” she said. “The customer picks additional amenities based on what they value. It’s instead of bundling at one price.”

Still, there are some who believe airlines aren’t being candid with their customers.

Lisa Bauer, of Dalton, Ga., who also was flying out of Chattanooga last week, said she had to pay a higher bag fee when she checked in at the airport because her husband didn’t take care of her luggage when he was online booking her flight.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “People just want to know the real deal.”

Here to stay?

Spokesman Tim Smith of American Airlines, whose affiliate American Eagle flies out of Chattanooga, said it appears the new business model is likely to continue in varying degrees.

“People say ‘I value that. It makes sense to me,”’ said Smith.

He said American doesn’t charge anything for a traveler to pick a seat while booking online as some airlines do, though the passenger can select an upgrade called Express Seats. That lets fliers reserve a seat in the first few rows of the coach cabin for a fee starting at $19.

Or, he said, the passenger for $10 can choose to board the plane with the first group.

Smith said while a checked baggage fee has become common, only 25 percent of American’s domestic customers pay it. Its frequent fliers, government employees and military personnel are exempt, he said, and some people simply use carry-ons.

Las Vegas-based Allegiant has been well received since coming to Chattanooga in 2006 with low fares and flights to Orlando and Tampa Bay, capturing about 15 percent of the airport’s market last year.

Fees for carry-on bag

Allegiant is one of the airlines that charges for booking tickets online or over the phone. To avoid a fee, the traveler has to walk into the airport to purchase the ticket, according to the airline.

Also, Allegiant’s president told In Business Las Vegas last week that company officials are looking at charging a fee for a carry-on bag. Currently, Spirit Airlines is the only U.S. carrier to charge a fee to put a bag in its carry-on bins. Fees cost as much as $45 each way.

LoPiccolo said the carrier’s booking procedures and a la carte options just give fliers control over what they spend.

“If they don’t care where they sit, they don’t have to pay for the service,” she said.

Chattanooga airport officials are prodding Allegiant, one of the airline industry’s most profitable companies, to add even more flights. The company also offers travelers the ability to book hotels, cars and tickets at attractions as well as flights.

Vision Airlines, which will fly between Chattanooga and Florida starting in April after a big expansion of commercial flights, is also providing travel services.

Bill Maloney of Vision said it’s currently just charging for checked bags.

“We want to create a good experience for the traveler and let them know what the fees are,” he said.

about Mike Pare...

Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...

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