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Fuel Costs Push Airlines to Raise Charges on Drinks, Checked Bags

By Simone Baribeau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

Think paying for in-flight snacks was a pain? Now a bottle of water can cost you, too.

Starting Aug. 1, US Airways will add nonalcoholic beverages to the growing list of amenities not included in a flight's base fare, thanks largely to increasing fuel costs.

Water, soda and juices will set passengers back $2. The cost of alcoholic beverages will increase from $5 to $7.

Fliers will face higher fees for more than just drinks. Yesterday, US Airways and United Airlines announced separately that they will soon charge some customers $15 for their first checked bag. Last month, American Airlines became the first major U.S. carrier to announce that it would charge a first-bag fee. United will also increase other baggage fees, including those for overweight bags and bags that require special handling.

And passengers may have a harder time finding a flight. US Airways will reduce flights starting in the fall. Continental Airlines yesterday released details of flight reductions announced last week. Among other changes, Continental will discontinue flights between Dulles International Airport and its hubs in Houston and Cleveland.

The cost of jet fuel has roughly doubled in the past year, with spot prices around $4 a gallon. Airlines were facing financial struggles before the fuel spike, and many carriers say they have no choice but to pass the increases on to customers.

The combination of added fare and fuel charges will cover less than 15 percent of the industry's fuel costs increases, said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. U.S. carriers had been reluctant to add fees for basic services in the past for fear of a consumer backlash, Mitchell said, but airlines now have little choice but to charge for individual services, a model common among European airlines.

"A good number of travelers are going to feel that this is yet again more nickel-and-diming," said Mitchell, whose group is an advocacy organization for corporate buyers of business travel services. "But it's a matter of [airlines'] survival at this point."

For now, thirsty US Airways passengers who are out of cash are out of luck. The carrier is not yet prepared to accept onboard credit card payments, US Airways spokesman Phil Gee said. That service is coming, he said, but in the meantime, passengers with special needs will be accommodated.

"For individuals that are sick or that are taking medication, the flight attendants will address the situation, always taking care of the customer," Gee said.

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said that after the sticker shock of the base fare, a $15 bag check fee or a $2 beverage fee won't be enough to get customers to choose another carrier.

"After you've made a decision about the flight, you're already committed," he said. "It's too late to do anything about it. You just sort of have to take it. . . . I think that every service that the airlines provide other than using the lavatory can be the subject of fees and charges."

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