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Keith Alexander

Booking a Free Flight? Not Quite

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, September 28, 2004; Page E01

Anthony Arcieri went shopping recently for a free flight from Washington to Chicago on US Airways using his frequent flier miles. He got his free trip -- only problem was it cost him $55.

Arcieri, a college administrator from Waldorf, also got a quick lesson in the add-on fees the airlines are charging these days.

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For booking his frequent flier rewards trip less than two weeks in advance, Arcieri was hit with a $50 fee. He also made the mistake of phoning the airline to book the ticket with an agent: Add $5 for the live human voice.

If Arcieri wanted meals on his flights he'd face an additional charge of $20 round trip. Total charges: $75. Arcieri's free trip to Chicago now cost nearly as much as a round trip from Washington to Pittsburgh on Independence Air, going for the sale price of $77.

US Airways is not the only legacy carrier charging these kinds of fees. Northwest Airlines initiated the $5 and $10 fees for booking through a live person and was followed by other airlines, including American, United and Continental. United Airlines charges frequent fliers $15 for the privilege of redeeming their miles for a free trip through a reservation or ticket agent. Book your free trip less than a week in advance and United tacks on a fee of $75.

In a determined push to add revenue and cut costs, many traditional airlines have gone fee-happy. There are fees for excess baggage, fees for unaccompanied minors, fees for requesting a paper ticket, fees for changing your ticket -- just to name a few.

Of course, many airlines waive some fees for their top travelers -- those who fly at least 50,000 miles a year.

Many low-cost airlines such as JetBlue and Southwest don't impose fees for last-minute use of frequent flier miles. Those two carriers don't charge for booking with a telephone agent. Low-cost carriers don't charge fees for meals because they don't have meal service. They also fly to fewer destinations and operate solely within the United States.

Minneapolis-based fare expert Terry Trippler of hubcitymsp.com said the older airlines have imposed the fees because they are unable to lower their costs enough to match the low-cost carriers.

"The legacy carriers have higher fares, higher fees and less service," Trippler said. "They're not nickel and diming travelers, they're $5 and $10-ing them."

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