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Oh, You Wanted to Sit Down While Flying the Friendly Skies?

Well, we went for the surcharge for speaking to a human being and we swallowed the extra charge for food on board airplanes, so now Northwest is testing to see if there's anything airline customers would actually balk at paying for. The airline announced its new "Coach Choice" program, which involves charging an extra $15 if you want one of those nifty aisle or exit-row seats.

Turns out that Northwest is not the very first to do this. The Wall Street Journal reports that Virgin Atlantic sells its exit-row seats for $75 above the cost of other coach seats, and Air Canada charges $12 for advance seat assignments on some flights.

And industry analysts say there's more to come: Some airlines are talking about charging for all liquids, not just the alcoholic ones, and even for checking bags. (So now you want to travel with your bags?)

According to the Associated Press, Terry Trippler of predicts that by the end of this year, it will cost you $5 each to check a bag. "I believe a $1 to $2 charge for sodas and juice is coming. But the most controversial issue will be when the first airline announces a charge for checking baggage. I believe it's coming, and it's coming in 2006." (Actually, when American Eagle tried to charge passengers for sodas, there was enough pushback that the airline retreated.)

But why stop with extra charges for aisle seats? There's a big promotion in store for the airline exec who develops the Straps or Seats-You Decide! Discount Plan, in which most seats will be removed from the aircraft. Passengers paying regular fares would be strapped to the fuselage wall, perching in safety and in full sight of video screens suspended from the ceiling--plenty of distraction for a flight of any length. Passengers wishing to take a seat for any portion of the flight could rent chair time at a modest per-minute rate.

The airlines, bizarrely, have not yet taken me up on my last pricing proposal, in which I argued that since fuel costs are up so sharply, it's only fair that passengers pay according to their weight.

But I'm sure the good folks at Northwest and other carriers are on this, and soon, we'll be able to make better use of our time in the security queue, filling out a comprehensive personal profile--weight, appetite, layers of clothing worn, tendency to yammer at seatmates--that can be used to calculate our fair and just fare.

Wouldn't you pay more not to sit next to a blabbermouth who takes up part of your seat?

By Marc Fisher |  March 15, 2006; 3:48 PM ET
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I wouldn't have a problem paying more for an aisle seat, if (and it's a big if) the airlines actually had a open and straightforward pricing structure for the seats. However, this is insane if we're still going to be playing base-fare roulette with prices for the same seat changing day to day. If we could see the whole menu of prices this could actually work. Something like:
Coach seat to Chicago from Dulles base fare: $150
Peak day/time: $50
Aisle seat: $25
Exit row: $30
Guaranteed overhead bin space above my seat: $15

And, this price would be the same no matter what day I booked the flight.

The key to this is knowing in advance what all of the individual price options are. I don't think the airlines are anywhere near ready to give up their secretive, variable pricing and because of that the consumers will be very, very loud.

Posted by: Jennifer | March 15, 2006 4:58 PM

Good point by Jennifer - really, the pricing is ridiculous, and these little bitty surcharges just make us angrier. Hello, airlines! Giant herds of angry, angry customers!

And I'd certainly be in favor of charging by weight. Said the skinny girl.

Posted by: h3 | March 15, 2006 6:43 PM

Mr. Fisher

I responded to your previous column on charging by weight with my own "modest proposal". Now just let me say that you are shortsighted in such a proposal. The airlines would need a price per seat, then price per pound of passenger, then price per pound of luggage, and price per pound of all carryon bags, then price per pound of babies, baby seats, strollers, etc. then price per pound of medical devices including wheel chairs, walkers, ets. I could go on, but I think I've made the point; paying by weight of passengers opens a Pandora's box of potential charges.

Most of the airlines are struggling just to keep enough money coming in to survive. Airline service in the future will be more like a bus than personal concierge service of the not so distant past.

So it goes.

Posted by: Michael | March 15, 2006 7:31 PM

Hey Marc,
Where have you been? United charged us for luggage last September in Portland, OR and this week in Denver. $2 per bag.

Posted by: Jon | March 15, 2006 8:39 PM

After surcharging fatties, the airlines can implement tight-pack and loose-pack, in remembrance of the accomodation given the cargo aboard slave ships. (In loose-pack the passenger gets to lie on his back. In tight-pack, he makes more room by lying on his side. Bathroom privileges are denied. Passengers who so elect will be met by ambulance or funeral coach at the termination point, which ever is applicable.)

Posted by: Mark | March 15, 2006 8:40 PM

American Airlines is charging for baggage checking too--at least at some airports and at least for curbside checking. Just today, I paid $2 to check a bag a curbside at LAX. I was stunned!

Posted by: THS | March 16, 2006 1:16 AM

Yes, several airlines now charge for curbside check-in. But none has yet begun to charge for regular checking of luggage. That's next.

Posted by: Fisher | March 16, 2006 6:41 AM

Boo to Northwest for this proposal. I travel back and forth between DC and Detroit a lot to visit family. Northwest is the main carrier out of Detroit, so most of my flights are through them. I hate to think that I may now be charged extra to be able to sit next to my children or husband. I will be sure to go out of my way to avoid Northwest at all costs.

Posted by: Jill | March 16, 2006 9:04 AM

Airline consumers are funny people. Without fail they will search for the lowest possible price. But then they complain that they don't get all the free stuff they used to (food, drinks, movies, unlimited carry-on), things we all got back in the good old days.

Hello people, flying used to be expensive. It cost more in 1980 to fly somewhere than it does today, not in inflation adjusted dollars but real dollars. Flying anywhere is one of the great bargins in the world.

As for charging $15 for more legroom, sign me up. I'd pay twice that not to have to worry about some 5'4" person lean their seat back into my knees as soon as we take off and then not understand why it bothers me.

Posted by: John | March 16, 2006 9:50 AM

I have long paid a couple bucks a piece to check my bags at the curb; this money used to go to the skycap in the form of a tip. Now it goes to the airline, and this will probably result in more skycap surliness in the future.

I don't begrudge them the money, though. If I don't want to pay, I can go inside and stand in line for fifteen to thirty minutes and then stand watching the counter agent while he types what must be the next chapter of his novel into the computer. There's rarely any wait at all on the curb, and there's far less typing involved to get checked in and assigned a seat out there. $2 a bag is easily worth it.

If the airlines charged *enough* for checked baggage, and increased their reliability and speed to protect that revenue stream, passengers would probably be less inclined to cram such large carry-ons into the bins. Even though the airlines don't often lose bags all together, it's pretty frustrating to stand at Dulles -- Dulles is one of the slowest airports at getting bags from the plane to the baggage carousel -- and watch an unmoving carousel for thirty minutes after a ninety-minute flight.

Posted by: Tino | March 16, 2006 11:09 AM

I really like Marc's idea of charging based on weight, because it makes sense -- if you bring more weight on the plane (you and your bags), which requires more fuel, which costs the airlines more, then you should be responsible for the increased costs.

Two things:

1. People AND THEIR LUGGAGE should be weighed together, thus no one would be embarrassed by having just their weight displayed. This could happen immediately after people exit the security line -- in draped-off areas akin to voting booths, they then quickly set their luggage on a wide scale akin to those at a veterinarian's office and step on themselves. However, many people would not want ONE MORE THING to stand in line for at the airport, no matter how quickly the process is promised to be.

2. How would tickets be purchased in advance? I can see if you bought a ticket AT the airport, but would most have to purchase a standard ticket via the usual channels, and then have the weight charge tacked on at the airport?

Charging for weight is a very creative idea, and I agree that it would almost certainly be the catalyst for many people to lose weight, but logistically I don't see how it can seamlessly be implemented into the air-travel process.

Posted by: Ahead of his time | March 17, 2006 11:01 AM

John rightly points out the role that passengers' buying practices play in airlines' rush to offer the bare minimum:

"Airline consumers are funny people. Without fail they will search for the lowest possible price. But then they complain that they don't get all the free stuff they used to (food, drinks, movies, unlimited carry-on), things we all got back in the good old days."

It's true that we shouldn't complain when airlines offer a bare minimum of 'service' for a lower price, if that's what we decide to pay for. When consumers just buy the cheapest ticket they encourage airlines to cut every corner imaginable, and charge for everything that's 'extra'.

_But_, I'd point out that the bizarre fare-pricing schemes of airlines, in turn, are partly responsible for consumers' decisions to pay the lowest price, no matter what. That's because those pricing schemes often create situations in which the lowest price, on a given route and date, is about $500 cheaper than the next lowest. When there's such a huge discrepancy, of course price becomes an overwhelming consideration. But it wouldn't, if the discrepancy were smaller.

Even as a comparatively penniless grad-student, I'd be happy to pay an extra $50-$100 to fly with an airline, if that airline definitely had better service, was more reliable in dealing with missed connections and lost baggage, and so on. But no amount of customer loyalty is going to make me fly with a given airline, when its price for a comparatively short one-stop domestic flight is $975, and a competitor is offering $340.

I'm actually glad that some airlines are charging for food (United's lunch-boxes, for example) on, say, 4-hour flights. That's because some airline food was already so bad that you only wanted to eat it because you had paid for it. If you're flying out of an airport that has decent enough restaurants, or you thought ahead enough to bring good food with you from home, you're definitely better off with that (which you chose), than the airline's food. A lot of people already did that anyway. That said, though, I wouldn't want longer transatlantic and transpacific flights to start treating all the meals as optional extras. On long flights, people look forward to the mealtimes, which break up the monotony, and food that you had brought on when you boarded seven hours earlier might not be that appetizing anymore anyway.

Charging for aisle seats is not a good idea, and I wonder whether it won't backfire. Let's think about what would happen. Right now, people who know they'll need to get up to go to the bathroom a lot or something just request an aisle seat. But of course, if it costs extra, in many cases they just won't request it. Instead, they'll sit in the middle or by the window, and just put up with the inconvenience of crawling over other people, including...the person who paid to sit in the aisle seat. I don't think I'd want an aisle seat if the others in my row were also people who wished they had an aisle seat!

Just some ideas.


Posted by: Beren | March 17, 2006 11:52 AM

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