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Don't let bag fees make you nostalgic. Airlines' golden age wasn't so golden.

By Brett Snyder
Sunday, April 18, 2010; B04

"It costs $25 just to check one bag on American?!"

"My flight was five hours late and they never told us why."

"I hate flying. It's just not fun anymore."

As the author of the Cranky Flier blog, I see comments like these every day. People fully expect their flying experience to be terrible, yet even with low expectations, there never seems to be a shortage of complaints. (Except, surprisingly, when a volcano happens to snarl air traffic.) In the past 10 years, we've seen airlines respond to higher fuel costs and dips in demand with fees for food, bags, seat assignments and more. Now Spirit Airlines says it will charge for carry-on bags, a move that caused such an outcry you'd think the carrier had announced that it would start killing puppies.

Last week, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said the carry-on fee "crossed the line of acceptable practices," and he and several other Democratic senators introduced legislation aimed at discouraging it. They're calling their bill the Block Airlines' Gratuitous Fees Act, or the BAG Fees Act.

But what is an "acceptable practice" when it comes to air travel? What about all these other airlines with their various fees? Is Spirit really doing anything wrong? I don't think so.

Americans today want flying to mirror the image in their heads of the glory days of air travel. But that vision is outdated. The industry is making changes not to ruin your life but to survive.

If you think about air travel 50 years ago, you probably envision smartly dressed businessmen reclining in big, comfy seats and enjoying elaborate meals. Meanwhile, attractive young stewardesses fawn over their customers -- the legendary "coffee, tea or me" days. Those days weren't, however, as glamorous as you might imagine.

I have a copy of TWA's flight schedule from June 1, 1959. The first jets were being introduced into the fleet, but the vast majority of flights were still on propeller-driven aircraft. There's an ad in the timetable for TWA's low coast-to-coast "excursion fares." Los Angeles to New York was only $168.40 roundtrip, if you traveled Monday through Thursday in Sky Club Coach class. That bargain is roughly equivalent to $1,225 today, before tax.

These fares weren't valid on the fastest aircraft, so you had only two options, neither of which went nonstop. There was the 10:10 a.m. departure from Los Angeles that arrived in New York at 11:41 p.m. that night or the 7:55 p.m. departure that arrived at 10:56 a.m. the next day -- more than 12 hours in the air. This was on a Lockheed Constellation, which, while beautiful, bounced you around in the weather at about 20,000 feet, far below the 35,000 to 40,000 feet you'd cruise at today. Even when the weather was good, that trademark prop vibration left you feeling like you were sitting on a washing machine for hours after you landed.

So what exactly was so good about the old days? The service was excellent, and the meals in First Class were quite indulgent. But in Sky Club Coach, the timetable noted, "Box lunches must be purchased at airport before departure." As in most cases, memories get better with age. Today, you can fly across the country in less than half the time for less than a quarter of the inflation-adjusted price, and you can watch TV or surf the Web along the way.

A rosy vision of the past sets unrealistic expectations. When deregulation occurred 30 years ago, it brought a major shift for the industry. Suddenly, airlines could fly anywhere they wanted domestically, and they began vying for customers based on price instead of service -- the prettiest stewardesses or the best food. That brutal competition claimed many carriers, including the legendary Pan Am.

The bursting of the tech bubble at the dawn of the 21st century set off a new round of cost cuts that only accelerated after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The sudden drop in demand meant the airlines had to do whatever they could to keep flying. For the first time in a long time, that meant some started charging for meals. Then they upped the fee to change flights. Soon, they started removing pillows and blankets from all but the longest flights, and checked-bag fees became the norm. Amid these shifts, security measures have intensified, and airlines have continued to grow while the infrastructure in many places has failed to keep pace. Fees are just one of many things that have changed the way we feel about flying. But they are the easiest thing to hate.

The usual question I get about all these extra charges is this: Why don't the airlines just raise fares? Unions have said that airlines could afford to give them raises if they increased fares by a few dollars. If only it were that easy. Competition in the industry is brutal, and customers have shown time and time again that, in most instances, they base their purchase decisions on price and schedule above all else. Having low fares is incredibly important for filling all those seats.

Airlines have also found that people look only at the base fare and don't bother to consider the entire trip cost: the bag fees, the price of food or even the parking rate at one airport vs. another. That -- and the fact that they can avoid taxation on fees -- is why airlines have gone toward extra charges. Spirit's management has been very clear about the direction in which the airline wants to go. Like European budget carrier Ryanair, it wants to make its base fares as low as possible and then make its money selling you extra stuff along the way. You're a captive audience, and airline executives know it. They've taken the old model of air travel and turned it around. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

People can choose to fly Spirit, or they can choose to fly someone else. If travelers don't plan on bringing a carry-on, Spirit's lower fares might be more attractive. If they need not only a carry-on but also some checked luggage, then they might look toward Southwest, which allows two free checked bags.

This sounds reasonable enough to me. But not to most people, it seems, including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who called the bag fee "skyway robbery."

People just don't like fees, but they aren't going anywhere. There is a way to make things better, though, and it's in the way tickets are sold. If I go to an online travel site, I'm shown price and schedule options. That's all I have at my disposal to make my decision. Give me a Web site that lets me put in the number of bags I'll have, whether I want a meal and what other perks I might want to pay for. Then tell me the final price for everything.

That way, the airlines can keep a low base fare for passengers who don't want to bring a bag or eat a meal, and customers can make a real apples-to-apples comparison to find the best price.

Let's stop holding airlines to an unrealistic vision from the past. Instead, look at an industry that carries millions of people around the world every day with an enviable safety record. If that's not enough, the airlines do it for far less per customer than they used to back in the old days, when most of us probably couldn't have even afforded a ticket.

cf@crankyflier.com

Brett Snyder is the editor of the Web site crankyflier.com and president of the air-travel service crankyconcierge.com.

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