Not Even Soda Is Sacred

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By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Some frequent travelers have long joked that it was bound to happen, and now it has: An airline will begin charging $1 for a cup of soda, taking away one of the last in-flight perks that airlines historically have given away.

Beginning next month, American Airlines' regional carrier, American Eagle, will begin charging coach passengers for a 12-ounce soft drink as part of its latest effort to add revenue.

And there may be more costs to come. The airline may charge for its snacks and sell pillows and blankets so passengers can use them on other flights.

Eagle plans to begin charging for sodas on its flights in and out of Los Angeles. If the test is successful, American's mainline fleet -- the nation's largest carrier -- could adopt some of the initiatives, said Eagle spokesman Dave Jackson, who acknowledged the potential for passenger blowback.

"That's one of the reasons you test something, to see what kind of impact it might have," Jackson said. "There's a potential for it to go negatively. We also want to see what customers value."

During the past year, airline passengers have discovered what it really means to be a captive audience. Services and perks that were once complimentary are now on their way to becoming as much a part of airline history as the paper ticket. The carriers blame the food and service fees on stiff competition from low-cost carriers and on higher fuel prices.

Washington frequent flier Anne Seymour jokingly said her biggest fear these days is going to lavatory and having to insert money before the door opens.

"They're nickel and diming passengers to death," said Seymour, a national victim's advocate for Justice Solutions. "What's next, I sneeze and ask for a Kleenex and they tell me that'll be $1?"

Terry Trippler, a travel analyst with Cheapseats.com, said he expects more fees next year. In fact, Trippler said he expects airlines one day to begin charging premiums for carry-on bags and aisle seats.

"Eventually it's going to be 'This is how much you pay for your ticket and that just gets you transportation.' You will need to pay for everything else," Trippler said.

Over the past year, fliers saw a surge in fees for food and services that once were free. For example, American recently joined Northwest and United Airlines in charging $2 for each bag a passenger checks at the curb.

Northwest began charging $1 for a three-ounce bag of almonds, cashews or raisins. Northwest even began charging passengers $10 extra on flights shorter than 1,000 miles.

Before it merged with America West, US Airways stopped handing out free bags of pretzels to its passengers. Instead, the airline planned to sell Kit Kat bars, Pringles, beef jerky and power bars for $3 each. But once America West took over the operations of US Airways, the airline nixed that idea and returned the free pretzels to the cabin.

Several airlines, including Delta, Northwest and US Airways charge $5 to $10 when a passenger books a flight at the airport ticket counter or through a telephone reservation agent rather than online.

Airlines tend to follow each other when it comes to charging fees. American isn't the first carrier to consider a pay-per-pillow service. In November, Air Canada began charging $2 for its "comfort kit," which includes a fleece blanket, pillow case and a plastic pouch that can double as a pillow. Air Canada spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur said the airline began charging because the practice is "in line with industry trends," adding that charging is preferable to removing pillows and blankets from its planes to cut costs. American had already ditched its pillows in effort to save money.

Question of the Week: Business Class wants to help someone pick out that perfect gift for a frequent flier. We all know about the noise-canceling headphones and portable DVD players, but what are some other items out there that would make the perfect gift? Send your comments to alexanderk@washpost.com . Include your name and a daytime telephone number.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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