Monday, December 10, 2012

Airline fees sap the joy out of flying

Bill Knauer used to enjoy jetting around on business. But he got no pleasure when US Airways dinged him $150 to change a flight because of a relative's illness.

Remember when you liked to fly? Bill Knauer does.

Knauer, 76, of Laguna Niguel, spent his career in the food industry. He hopscotched all over the country peddling his wares.

Fun fact: Knauer says he was the young Swanson executive who introduced TV dinners to Los Angeles in 1959.

"I had to fly all the time back then," he told me. "It was very enjoyable."

Not anymore.

What follows won't be a news flash to today's air travelers. But Knauer's recent experience with US Airways struck me as a fairly typical example of how a struggling industry has gone out of its way to treat its customers like litter-box leavings.

And passengers take the abuse because, well, what choice do we have?

Airlines are expected to pocket more than $36 billion in revenue from fees this year, according to the Amadeus Worldwide Estimate of Ancillary Revenue, an annual industry report. This is 11.3% more than last year.

For the last decade, Knauer and his four brothers, ranging in age from 73 to 87, have convened each year in Minnesota for a family get-together. As Knauer observes, none of them are getting any younger.

For this year's September reunion, he bought a nonrefundable, round-trip coach ticket for $443 with US Airways in March. Knauer knew such an early booking was risky, but he figured, as someone living on a fixed income, this would be the best way to hedge against rising fuel prices.

It looked like a prudent bet. The International Air Transport Assn. estimates that fuel now accounts for about a third of carriers' costs worldwide. This percentage is only expected to grow as increasing demand pushes oil prices higher amid a gradual economic recovery.

When I priced a ticket with US Airways the other day for the same trip Knauer booked, the cost was $562.

Unfortunately, Knauer bet wrong. The wife of his brother in Minnesota contracted Lyme's disease in August, and the annual reunion had to be called off. So Knauer got in touch with the airline to see about rescheduling.

Sure, it was possible, but US Airways said he'd have to pay a $150 "change fee."

"That seemed pretty excessive," Knauer said, noting that discount carrier Frontier Airlines had dinged one of his other brothers with a fee of just $75 to reschedule his flight.

Tough, US Airways replied. You want to change with us? That'll be $150.

And he could consider himself lucky. If he'd been booked on an international flight, the airline's change fee would have been a whopping $250.

Don't you love how airlines reserve the right to bump you from the plane if they overbook a flight, which they routinely do, yet insist that if you have to make a change, it's this major hassle requiring a hefty penalty?

Anyway, Knauer agreed to the change fee but then had another curveball thrown his way. For his $150, he'd purchased the right to book another flight at any time during the next year.

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