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What's wrong with the airlines' new $10 surcharge for travel on busy days? (UPDATED)

You're already paying airlines extra fees for checking your bags, feeding you bad food, and letting you watch a bad movie. Now, as Gadling mentioned a few days ago, several airlines, including American, United, U.S. Airways, and Delta, have announced that beginning this Thanksgiving, domestic passengers will have to pay an extra $10 for the privilege of flying on a busy travel day.

The surcharge will apply to domestic flights on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and to flights on January 2 and 3, the first weekend after New Year's Day.

So what's wrong with this? Well, it's not that the airlines are charging a premium to people who fly on very busy days-- they already do that. (Ever looked at the price of a Christmas Eve plane ticket? Ouch.) No, the problem is that the airlines are creating yet another new "surcharge" instead of simply adding $10 to the base price of a ticket. (see update below)

The reason they're doing this is obvious: it allows the airline to hide the premium in the "taxes and fees" portion of the ticket (where it might go unnoticed) rather than in the "base airfare" price. This is, of course, a bit deceptive-- taxes and fees already make up a a large chunk, sometimes the majority, of a plane ticket's price-- and this new surcharge doesn't quite feel legitimate. One Gadling commenter said it well: "It's the sneaky nature of the thing that makes us dislike it."

Note that, as Scott wrote in his original post, Continental, Southwest, Alaska Airlines, and Jet Blue, perhaps recognizing that their customers already feel nickel-and-dimed to death, have decided they will not institute the fees.

If these surcharges are instituted with little backlash, look for them to be expanded to Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Arbor Day, weekends...

UPDATE: American Airlines' Media Relations guru Tim Smith emails to say:

"Any surcharge (for any reason) shows up directly IN THE FARE AMOUNT and does NOT affect any of the applicable taxes or fees. As always the customer gets to see the bottom line fare and full price PRIOR to making any purchase decision. The customer does not notice a difference! If it is $10 in the fare or $10 as a surcharge it is the same and looks the same!...

"So, if it's the same as adding $10 to the fare, why not do it that way? The answer is simple, though still perhaps difficult for people to understand. Most fare changes (which cover thousands of markets and many dates of travel) are filed into a massive, computerized clearinghouse (ATPCO) that then pushes the fare information out to all the different computerized reservations systems – both online and those used by travel agents.

Gadling's own Tom Johansmeyer discussed the scourge of airline fees here. I defended(!) Ryanair's proposed "pay to pee" scheme here.

Filed under: Business, United States, Airlines

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