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Airline Excess: Nonstop

The Shameless Money-Grab Continues: What’s Next?

U.S. airlines’ definition of customer satisfaction seems to differ from everyone else’s. In addition to long lines for security checkpoints and a bewildering array of fees, air travelers are held hostage to a lack of choices because of airline mergers.

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If you believe that the miserable experience of air travel—the fees, the passenger discomfort and the overall dissatisfaction—is because U.S. airlines are struggling, you’re wrong.

Every reporting U.S. air carrier declared a profit for 2015, according to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Airlines’ profit reached $24.1 billion, which is up from $14.9 billion in 2014, FAA says.

How are they doing it, you ask? On the backs of consumers.

Take the following scenarios, which are representative of hundreds of U.S. flights daily, according to travel experts and industry websites:

  • Because the airline “oversold” the number of available seats, passengers who don’t have seat assignments will be bumped. (By federal regulation, such passengers are entitled to three times the value of their flight, but airlines typically try to buy off passengers who are desperate to reach their destination with a voucher for a later flight or reward frequent-flier air miles.)
  • About 20 passengers will board first, having paid for the privilege of priority boarding, either by buying first-class fare, which typically is twice the price of an economy ticket for a domestic flight, by paying a fee that ranges from $9–$40 or by earning elite status through frequent-flier miles or an elite credit card.
  • General-boarding passengers will face typical checked-baggage fees of $25 per bag. (They will attempt to avoid those fees by cramming in some cases, 180 pieces of carry-on luggage into overhead spaces that are designed to fit a maximum of 125 bags.)
  • During the flight, passengers will be charged for meals, headsets and seatback entertainment. Those who are willing to pay extra ($8–$199) will get about 2 inches of extra legroom.

Because the consolidation of major airlines means that you have fewer flights from which to choose, the odds are good that you’ll arrive at your destination frustrated, flustered, tired or all three. Furthermore, fees add up more than ever before long before you enter an airport, where you’re likely to be met by long lines at the security checkpoint.

Do you remember the scene in “Top Gun” when the hotshot pilot buzzes his commanding officer, which causes the officer to dump hot coffee on his shirt? The airline industry is that pilot, and we’re the person who gets burned.

TSA MAYHEM. Dysfunction within Transportation Security Administration (TSA) lines has become emblematic of the problems with flying today in the United States. During the busy spring-break travel week of March 14–20, 2016, for example, lines became so long that thousands of travelers missed flights.

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Despite significantly increasing overtime for many gate agents in response as well as adding more canine units to sniff out drugs and explosives, wait times in many airports remained high at press time. Bruce Schneier, who is a computer-security specialist who writes about TSA issues, terms long wait times “the new normal,” because TSA reduced its workforce by 10 percent since 2013, although passenger volume increased by 12 percent during that time. Any reduction of wait times would depend on passenger numbers shrinking and more TSA funding being found, he says.

Pressure has been placed on airlines to take some responsibility, because checked-baggage fees increased the number of carry-on luggage by 27 percent at checkpoints that serve airlines that charge for bags compared with those that don’t, according to TSA. This then slows security lines.

U.S. Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., along with Department of Homeland Security, urged airlines to suspend checked-baggage fees during the peak summer-travel season. The plea was dismissed by Airlines for America (A4A), which is a mouthpiece for the U.S. airline industry. As of press time, no changes were expected.

“The airline industry has manipulated the government in this arena by profiting from bag fees without kicking back anything to cover the increased amount of bags TSA screeners have to deal with,” says Christine Negroni, who has followed the airline industry for 16 years and is the author of two books on aviation accidents.

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