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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.
Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel Asia

Why fearless flyers won’t flee fees

Look forward to airline charges for window seats, overhead bins, to leapfrog the security queue, and even for excessive body weight. Bravo.


Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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We say bring on those hidden airline fees, illustration by Vijay Verghese
Bring on those hidden airline fees/ illustration: Vijay Verghese.

THE NEWS was unsettling. Like me, airlines everywhere are deeply disturbed by recent comments from US Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood who, in an unguarded outburst, declared, “Airline passengers have a right to be treated fairly… with the respect they deserve.” He was referring to new Department of Transport (DOT) rules requiring greater transparency on ticket fees and hidden charges, higher compensation for bumped passengers and ceilings on tarmac delays.

Yet airlines can draw some comfort in the fact that until 23 August, 2011, when these rules come into effect in the United States of America, passengers can be treated as shabbily and disrespectfully as necessary.

I say, bring on those baggage fees, fuel surcharges, paid toilets, snack levies, and booking fines that make travel such a pleasurable experience, keeping road warriors on their toes. That’s how wannabe shoe bombers get apprehended. By alert passengers, oxygen-rich blood pounding through their veins as they spot each new scam. No terrorist has ever been caught by a smug bunch of satisfied fat cats who fell asleep in deep-padded lumbar-support seats at take-off.

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There is a cost to consider as well. Strip away the hidden fees and bust airlines will be up the creek without a paddle. And where would that leave us passengers? According to airline consumer watchdog FlyersRights.org, in 2010 US airlines raked in US$22 billion in miscellaneous fees from checked baggage, rerouted tickets and inflight meals. On baggage fees alone, Delta earned an estimated US$733m for the first nine months last year. During this period it also earned US$530m on fees for changes in reservations. No small beer this. If passengers are abused now, think of what may be in store from an airline deprived of a billion dollars in revenue.

The new DOT rules will limit tarmac delays to a maximum of three hours for domestic flights, and four hours for international flights. During this time, “working toilets” and medical care must be provided. Bumped passenger who are delayed from one to two hours of their scheduled arrival time will be due compensation of US$650 (up from the current US$400), while passengers denied boarding and held up over two hours will get US$1,330 (up from US$800). Finally, airlines will be required to list all hidden fees and taxes on advertising (though not on prices quoted through computer reservation systems).

Some suggestions include: US$5 for online reservations, a US$10 fee to chat with a real person on the telephone, a US$25 exit-via-chute charge, and a US$15 aisle seat fee

The DOT remained unmoved by reports of the deep camaraderie that developed onboard CX888 when it was prevented from deplaning passengers for 12 hours at New York’s JFK airport because no gate was available. This was a brave attempt by Cathay Pacific at civic integration and interaction. In Hong Kong’s high-rise apartments where people live in such close proximity that simply brushing your teeth could spatter and ruin the neighbour’s laundry, privacy is highly prized. Neighbours do not know – or care to meet – each other. Godzilla and King Kong could move in wearing pink wigs and Victoria’s Secret underwear, completely unnoticed, save for the trampled BMWs.

In Singapore the government tells people to love Chinese, Indians and Malays equally. In Hong Kong, as no one has bothered to inform anyone about this, we go about each day smacking people in the teeth, especially if they look different. Hey, your skin tone is 10 percent darker than mine. WHACK!

China Airlines too, caught in the late December 2010 blizzard, entertained its passengers for 10 hours on the tarmac in a heartwarming display of hospitality. Now the DOT wants to end all that. It is crunch time for airlines. And if it happens in America, could Ouagadougou be far behind?

It is heartening then to note that many carriers are seriously considering introducing a whole bunch of new fees to ensure passengers have a jolly time. Some of the suggestions include: a US$5 online reservations charge, a US$10 fee to chat with a real person on the telephone, a US$25 exit-via-chute charge in the event of a tarmac holdup, a US$15 aisle seat booking fee with a window seat priced at an extra US$20. According to FlyersRights, the list goes one: “Carry-on baggage bin fee, US$10 (items fitting under the seat in front of you are free); body mass index (BMI) fee, rising scale US$10-$50.”

Now there’s a thought. Planes huff and puff and burn up costly aviation fuel to get all that weight aloft so why not charge passengers for bringing heavy beer bellies aboard? In the Pacific, several airlines weigh passengers together with their baggage to publicly demonstrate the perils of too many pulled-pork sandwiches. Planes only fly with an allotted weight, and passengers and their luggage are often separated to get the math right. Flight is based on the simple principle that to achieve lift, you need to increase thrust while reducing drag and weight. What better way than tossing the lard overboard? Treating passengers with respect? That’s so Stone Age. Stay slim people. And alert.

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