Why you should care

Because nothing is really free.

Among the cornucopia of frustrations that come with flying coach, the dreaded “add-on” fee ranks high: We’re now conditioned to pay extra to check luggage, eat a few crumbs or endure the ride in a smidgen of comfort. When a big airline such as Delta walks back some fees, travelers cheer.

We think that’s terribly wrongheaded. In an industry with vanishingly thin profit margins, we fliers should give thanks for those fees: They keep fares low, minimize inefficient bells and whistles, and make things a bit fairer all around. Why should a light-packing, teetotaler horse jockey subsidize the bag space, drinks and room everyone else takes up? In fact, American airlines should take lessons from their overseas counterparts and amp up the fees even more. Take AirAsia, which charges for you to pick any seat, not just premium ones. Long-haul buses and trains typically assign seats; why shouldn’t planes charge you more for choice?

Since the 1950s the average global fare per mile has consistently dropped, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers analysis, due mostly to increased competition. And one legitimate gripe about the add-ons is that they make competition (and peanuts-to-peanuts comparisons) more difficult: Kayak and other sites can give you the base fare, but you don’t know the whole cost until you’ve nearly entered in your credit card number. “I’ve been trying to get (the federal Department of Transportation) to require that airlines reveal these fees with all of their exclusions and so on to travel agencies and to the public,” says Charles Leocha, president of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Travelers United. “So then we can comparison shop.” Some want heavier-handed efforts. Two senators have introduced a bill to give DOT the power to regulate what it determines are “unreasonable” airline fees. We think that’s silly.

Let’s enforce some transparency while bringing on more fees to convert flying fully from buffet to a la carte. There could be charges for a seat near the gate before boarding — unbundled from the existing airport fee. Overhead space could come with a charge, perhaps bringing relief from freeloaders taking the time to jam their bags into impossible spaces. Charge for the in-flight magazine — heck, why not charge for the seat back pocket too?

There is one amenity though that should remain free of charge — the toilet. After all, it could be awfully uncomfortable for everyone if a passenger desperately needed to answer nature’s call at 30,000 feet and couldn’t find a quarter.

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