Some fliers curse airline fees, but balk at possible congressional cure

An airline industry survey said most fliers actually prefer fees, if the “unbundled” charges mean a lower ticket price overall and the choice of services they want. (Photo by frankieleon/flickr via Creative Commons)

Air travel hit record highs last year, but passenger complaints were also up to the highest level in years, with one of the main complaints being about fees. (Photo by frankieleon/flickr via Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Larry Ward thinks the fees that airlines charge are “absurd,” but the Fountain Hills resident is no more enthusiastic about any possible solution to the problem that involves Congress.

“They cannot even manage the country’s fiscal responsibilities, and are too liable to corrupt influence,” Ward said in response to a Public Insight Network query on rising airline fees and what should be done about them.

Others weren’t so sure, saying it’s time for Congress to step in and do something about the fees that most agreed are just another knock against flying.

Domestic air travel hit an all-time high last year, with almost 800 million fliers, but a recent survey said passenger complaints in 2015 also hit their highest level in 15 years, with fees one of the chief culprits.

“The nickel-and-dime fee structures alienate the customer base,” Arizona resident David Plummer told PIN.

A Senate bill would address the issue by prohibiting fees on baggage, reservation cancellations or “any other fee” that is “not reasonable and proportional to the costs incurred” by the airlines. The Forbid Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous Fees Act – or FAIR Fees – was introduced March 9 by Democratic Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, but has yet to get a hearing.

It’s fine with Valley resident Frederick Rouse if the bill doesn’t go anywhere, even though he said he would “love to see lower fees.”

“I never want to see the government involved in regulating airline fees,” Rouse, a “sometimes” flier, told PIN. “The government has a very poor record at administering and regulating any industry.”

But one industry official says the government doesn’t have to regulate fees. Airlines for America spokeswoman Melanie Hinton said passengers actually prefer unbundled, or “a la carte pricing,” because it lets them pay for only the services they need or want.

-Cronkite News video by Samantha Witherwax

She pointed to an industry survey that Airlines for America released last month that said two-thirds of fliers prefer unbundled pricing if that translates to lower ticket prices.

“People only want to pay for what services they need or want,” Hinton said, adding that the different fees for different airlines are what gives each airline its competitive advantage.

“By doing an a la carte service, it leaves more people the ability to travel,” Hinton said.

Hinton also said that the industry survey showed 80 percent of fliers were satisfied with the experience.

But an annual study by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State University said that while more people were traveling last year, more were also complaining. The 2016 Airline Quality Rating said passenger complaints were at the highest point in over a decade and a half.

Editor’s note:

An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Jim Leemann. The story here has been updated, but clients who used previous versions of this story are asked to run the correction that can be found here.

“Customer complaints about fares and fees, perhaps is the reason that we’re at a 15-year high in the number of customer complaints filed,” said Brent Bowen, dean at Embry-Riddle College of Aviation, at the report’s April release.

That’s just one of the reasons why Douglas Kidd, the executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, said he support the FAIR Fees Act.

“The ordinary traveler shouldn’t have to pay anything more than an ordinary ticket fare,” Kidd said.

He said he understands that airlines are a business and they have to make a profit. But he is not willing to let passengers settle for what he says is less than they deserve.

“We don’t want them (airlines) going out of business, we understand that they need to make money,” Kidd said. “But they should be making that on the tickets not the fees.”

Like many of the PIN respondents who said they support congressional action on fees, Vicky Hay of Phoenix traced the problem back to Congress’ decision to deregulate the airlines in the first place.

“Airline travel was far more affordable and far more user-friendly before deregulation,” said Hay, who wrote to PIN that she “absolutely!” supports congressional action to regulate airline fees.

But Jim Leemann of Scottsdale echoed many opponents to congressional action, telling PIN that the free market should be allowed to determine fair fees – not the FAIR Fees Act.

“The government has no idea how to run a business, much less something like a competitive airline business,” said Leemann, adding that the price of airfare “is reasonable and always has been reasonable.”

“If people cannot afford to fly, then drive,” he added.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sources in the Public Insight Network informed the reporting in this story through a partnership with the Cronkite PIN Bureau. To send us a story idea or learn more, click here.