Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A New Surprise Airline Fee: The gate-service fee, a charge tied to Basic Economy fares, often erases the savings of the cheaper ticket

There’s a new snag at the airport catching fliers by surprise: the gate-service fee.

It’s not a fee to use a gate. (Maybe someday!) Instead, United and American have created a fee to discourage travelers who buy their cheapest fare, Basic Economy, from bringing a carry-on bag that doesn’t fit under the seat.

With Basic Economy on United and American, you lack privileges to put a bag in an overhead bin unless you have elite status or a qualifying credit card. But if you don’t figure that out before boarding or try and sneak one on anyway, the two airlines charge the standard baggage fee to check the bag at the gate, usually $25 if it’s your first checked bag. Then, they hit you with an additional $25 fee.

United calls it a gate-handling charge. American labels it a gate-service fee. It’s really a penalty on top of a fee.

Most passengers don’t get charged a baggage fee when planes run out of overhead bin space and bags must be checked. They are entitled to two carry-on items: a small one under the seat and a larger one overhead. Not so with Basic Economy on United and American. (Delta’s Basic Economy does allow an overhead bin bag.)

Vishnu Bhargava and his wife were flying on United from San Francisco to Boston in late July and didn’t notice the conditions of Basic Economy tickets. He checked in the night before, paid for one checked bag and planned to bring two carry-ons. He didn’t read the small print.

When they got to the gate, they were told their carry-on bags would have to be checked. His cost $50—the standard bag fee plus the gate handling charge. His wife’s was $60, since she had already checked one bag. United charges $35 for a second bag, plus the extra fee.

“I was shocked,” says Mr. Bhargava, a retired physician from India. “Whatever I saved with Basic Economy, I had to pay more. This fee is not at all fair.”

United says it communicates with customers about the Basic Economy rules throughout the booking process and prior to airport arrival. “We do everything we can to make sure customers do not reach the gate with a bag that needs to be gate-checked,” spokeswoman Maggie Schmerin says.

She declined to comment on why the gate-handling charge is added to the baggage fee. In the past, United has said that blocking overhead-bin carry-ons from Basic Economy passengers has sped up departures, since gate agents tag and check fewer bags.

American says it decided to impose the additional fee to encourage Basic Economy passengers to check bags at the ticket counter instead of the gate. “The whole guiding principle here is that it’s important for Basic Economy passengers to check all bags larger than a personal item,” spokesman Josh Freed says.

Checking more bags at the ticket counter avoids tying up agents with last-minute discussion and credit card transactions, he notes. “Things are better if they are not last-minute,” he says.

The past decade has seen airlines fall in love with fees, often charging for services once included in basic coach fares. Baggage fees began at major airlines in 2008. The fee to change a ticket rose to $200 for domestic trips about four years ago. Fees for many other functions, from carry-on pets to reserving seats together to sending unaccompanied minors, also have increased.

In 2016, U.S. airlines collected $4.2 billion in baggage fees, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, and another $2.9 billion in ticket change and cancellation fees. That $7 billion equaled more than half of the $13.5 billion in total U.S. airline profits for 2016, according to BTS.

Gate-service fees arrive amid continuing confusion over heavily restricted Basic Economy fares. Many shoppers see the lowest prices on comparison-shopping sites and don’t realize those tickets don’t get advanced seat assignments or other basics. Even the name of the fare can be confusing: Isn’t Basic Economy what we’ve been buying all these years when we grab the cheapest coach price? The fares are more bare-bones than basic.

Jay Hines, a project manager for a New York health-care technology company, was warned by United about the Basic Economy baggage limit when he checked in at the airport in early August. He was surprised at so many restrictions on a $485 round-trip fare to Denver, and figured the $50 he paid to check his bag round-trip wiped out any savings. The threat of the gate-service charge added to his anger.

“It’s a little bit cruel and unusual punishment,” he says. “They charge you for checking the bag. They don’t have to impose a penalty.”

Disclosing the intricacies of Basic Economy fares and each airline’s policies, not to mention little-known new fees, becomes difficult for independent travel-sellers. That’s especially true when so much ticket-buying is migrating to phones apps with small screens and limited space for fine print.

At Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a major business-travel vendor, more than 50% of clients have chosen to block Basic Economy fares from displays because those companies decided the restrictions aren’t appropriate for their business travelers. The downside to CWT: not having the lowest fare to display can fuel the perception that third-party websites offer lower prices than corporate booking sites, CWT Chief Executive Kurt Ekert says. And disclosing all the restrictions is nearly impossible, especially on a mobile platform, he says.

Like many, Mr. Ekert wasn’t aware of the $25 gate-service charge.

“There’s no way you can describe that nuance,” he says. In terms of airline strategy, “you could say it’s deceptive, or very intelligent, depending on how you want to describe that,” Mr. Ekert says.


  1. A friend was complaining about being 'nickeled and dimed' to death on a recent flight.
    'Seats were awful, couldn't carry on a bag, had to pay huge fees for checking bags!'
    'Maybe you should pay for the better seats or use a more friendly airline', I said.
    'I only care about price!', he said.
    Therein lies the problem. Airlines know it.

  2. This fee is no "surprise". It should be expected. You asked for fees like this. Yes, you did.

    "Vishnu Bhargava and his wife were flying on United from San Francisco to Boston in late July and didn’t notice the conditions of Basic Economy tickets."

    I call bullshit on the Bhargavas. Who buys something without reading the terms?? They bought a new "basic" fare and got what they paid for. What did they expect?

    People complain that they are tired of new fees for things that used to be part of a "full service" airline? Well, you've told the airline that those services are not important to you. You did that. So now you get cheap fares and pay extra for extras.

    This is our fault, as consumers. It's not the Airlines' fault, it's not the government's fault, and it's no one elses fault. It's our fault.

    And it is a mere symptom, not the root problem. The root problem is the cheapening of air travel and a race to the bottom in fares and service.

    Just remember, before you click that cheap $99 fare on the internet again, you are communicating to airline(s) what is most important to you ... a low price with cut-rate service to match. Anything else costs extra. Race to the bottom.

    With that cheap fare you get less space, less overhead storage, less complimentary food and beverage, and are being nickeled and dimed for everything from checked baggage to a pillow. You built that.

    If you want to be cheap, the airline(s) will listen to you and give you what you want. Example of this phenomenon? Spirit, anyone? Enjoy that. Enjoy it long and hard once we turn all the airlines into Spirit. And this adds to traveller irritation.

    You (collectively) make this happen. The Spiritization of the airline industry, where crappy 'discount' service increasingly displaces full-service airlines.

    Just remember this when your prime mission in planning your next trip is to click the cheapest fare you can find. This kind of behavior crowds service out of air travel, and makes people uncomfortable and irritable. Take it from someone who travels over 175 days a year. The airline(s) are listening to what you are telling them that you want. And they are going to give it to you. Long and hard.

    Want decent basic services on a flight? Don't be cheap.

  3. No Sympathy.

    The basic no frills ticket is meant for people who want to hop on a plane and hop off where they have nothing but a small bag or purse.

    You went for the cheapest option without reading the 'gotcha' clauses.

  4. Don't be dicks, seriously.

    When you buy a ticket on a 3rd party site you don't even see gotcha clauses. What more, these fees are all within the last nine months and most people don't fly very often.

  5. As a long-time frequent flyer, I, too, have seen the degradation in quality and service when traveling aboard domestic U.S. air carriers. BUT, there are also passengers who are unreasonable, and their selfishness imposes inconvenience and often delay on the passengers who abide by the rules.

    The airlines have long made curbside and/or ticket counter baggage check-in available to all passengers. Those who insist on bringing to the gate bags they wish to be checked should expect that the cost of the extra service...not just the fee itself...will be due and payable. They can save themselves the penalty if they check their bags at the curb or ticket counter.

    That said, the airlines have asked for trouble by disallowing, in some cases, any free carry on bags. It is simply unrealistic to expect people to travel without being able to bring any baggage with them.

  6. Oh you crybabies. You wanted to save $40 and now you're unhappy you weren't treated like the Queen of England.


  7. Simmer down folks! There is enough greed for everyone concerned.

  8. Let me translate the message that the airlines are sending you: if you can't afford the fees, you probably can't afford to travel by air. Think before you click.

  9. It is called Purgatory. Just short of Hell.

  10. Memo to Travel Naifs:

    The airlines are in the selling business like anyone else. Having to contend with bottom feeders’ fingertip search comparisons, they were brilliant to shift to added fees so they could post the lowest prices. It is amusing how many of you are shocked the airlines want to make money.

    As a business traveler, I am pleased that your airfare now only includes a seat. I have long been sick of you clogging the aisles when you stop to stuff the overhead bins at the front of the plane with your two armfuls of essentials.

    And now you want to gripe about a small baggage fee? Oh, please. When you pay only a few hundred dollars to safely and swiftly fly 5,000 miles from one coast to the other and back, it’s costing you only a nickel a mile. And now poor you has to pay $25 to check a bag? That’s another 1/2 of 1 cent a mile.

    Maybe now that you have to pay for it, you’ll pack only essentials.

  11. The problem is not that people are cheap or have too high expectations, its that the whole process is confusing. If you are on a budget (and contrary to many commentators on this post, many of us are) you try to save a buck whenever you can. You pack lightly, forgo snacks, etc.But what happens when the ticket counter says your bag is fine and the gate says otherwise? What happens when the connecting flight has smaller overhead bins? What happens when you plan all this at home and think you have the correct sized bag but the gate says otherwise? I've seen those example space limits displayed at the gates but I always see people walking onto planes with overhead bags bigger than they should be and the airline never enforces it. So penalizing people seems to be flipping-the-script abruptly. I understand their concerns, but flying is an inherently confusing process. Many will disagree with me because they fly often for business (or born with silver spoons). The truth is that airlines are masters at sowing confusion. Has anyone ever notices that half the P.A. systems in our airports are impossible to understand? Cant't just have a digital display saying which class is boarding? Or install a better P.A. system. They claim they want to streamline the boarding process but I call BS because their lack of creativity in handling gate issues signals to me that they are either incompetent or lying.

  12. Can anybody name another industry where the customer is subject to less comfort, less convenience, a dehumanizing experience, more hassles and increased fees, year after year?

    I just dread flying commercial any more.

  13. To hell with TSA. Diamond DA40 does well enough.

  14. The guys coming up with these new cheaper fare schemes are truly amazing. They put the snake oil salesmen of years past to shame.

    I still also place blame on idiots who don't read the fine print, but a lot of praise is due to those that spend tons of time making that fine print as legally cryptic and ambiguous (yet clear) as possible.

  15. Prices increased so to offset the rising cost of fuel. When that wasn't for the airlines then they added baggage fees. Since then the price of fuel
    has dropped but the airlines never removed or lowered the baggage fees. In fact their profit levels have been all time high. Now they want to increase fees with this? It's no wonder the public files lawsuits against them for any petty thing. We are fed up with their greed and the Feds should step in.

  16. Truly some of the most ignorant comments I've ever read. If you're defending the airlines for this, you're an absolute cretan.
    Capitalism isn't a one way street, it works both ways. Defending the airline for 'trying to make a buck' while condemning customers for trying to save a buck, in the same breath, makes zero sense. 'Boogidy doogidy doo' makes more sense than that. Especially when the airlines are making that money through hidden fees and capitalizing on presumption of institutionalized traditions.

    Imagine going into a store, buying something that was on sale and when you're walking out the door, finding out that there's a 30% register fee you have to pay before exiting the store. And you have no choice but to pay... you can't return the item or put it back on the shelf, you can't leave the store until you pay the extra fee. That's basically what this equates to. And no, fine print is not an excuse, especially considering on many 3rd party websites, the fine print doesn't say anything about this nonsense baggage fee.

    This is criminal thievery.

  17. This article assumes there's no weather, mechanical, crew, or other delay and you've actually boarded the plane...

  18. Gotta laugh at the "anonymous" business traveler who lectures the nails: unless you own the company, you're probably flying for free. And you have the nerve to complain.

    These are NEW FARES that in the past included a carryon. There's bought d to be some confusion. I pity the poor soul who ends up sitting next to you. We all know business travelers, never check a thing and crowd the gate before call so they can be first. Such glamour!

  19. What would be extremely helpful on third party websites, is if they ask you what options you want (baggage, snacks, preferred seats, etc) using a checkbox list BEFORE the search is executed. The website then tallies your options across all airlines, and shows the fares as they would ACTUALLY be. This would prevent airlines from surprising customers at the airport.

  20. Just out of curiosity, do these airlines charge passengers a fee if they are morbidly obese and cannot fit in a single seat?

  21. There are a few axioms, anytime you plan your arrival so you can get in a round of golf, they ship your clubs to the wrong destination. Hopefully you can get them before you have to return. Anytime you arrive early there isn't a gate and they park you on some taxiway for an hour until they find one. Anytime you board on time and get ready to pushback there's a mechanical which really means there is something wrong downstream which will delay you anyway. Always take the first flight out in the morning and then take the overbook offers on a following flight, that way your clubs may arrive before you do. Check weather before your flight and understand what flow control is.

  22. Stop complaining people.
    You get what you pay for.
    You don't like it?
    Upgrade your ticket.
    Why should the airline industry operate differently than other businesses?
    You don't like Motel 6, you go to the Marriot.
    You don't like a Chevy, you get a Mercedes Benz.
    It's Economics. Go to school learn the power of the Dollar and the power of the choices you make. This is Capitalism -- best system on earth. Unless, of course, you believe you are one of the Entitled ones.

  23. In my view, JetBlue is the clearest and most convenient and lucky for me goes to places I have to go from my town in Florida. The advantage JetBlue has is you can book a fare that includes a bag and can upgrade to a good seat for a modest fee if you choose. The fare that includes a bag also gets you more JetBlue points for travel later which is also pretty easy to use. JetBlue has free internet on board that works very well on my flights along with free television and satellite radio. On Delta, I can book these cheaper fares since my credit card includes a checked bag.