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Airline fees have you reaching for the sick bag? Vote with your wallet.

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, April 18, 2010; G01

"MADtv" wasn't so mad after all.

When the writers on the comedy show penned a 2008 skit about a no-frills airline that charges multiple fees, who knew they were predicting the future? The airline industry now has more add-on fees than the number of peanuts in the miniature bag still given to some lucky passengers.

You can view the skit on YouTube by searching for "MADtv No Frills Airline."

Want a seat belt?

That will cost you $5. Want the part that releases the seat belt? That's another $7. Although many passengers don't bother to read the safety pamphlet, on the fictitious no-frills airline, if you do want to read what to do if there is an emergency, you'll have to cough up $3. For reading the pamphlet and then quickly putting it back after hearing about the $3 fee, you'll have to pay $4.

Oxygen masks are free. But to start the flow of air, you'd better have $75.63. "Exact change is appreciated."

Silly skit, right?

Not so much anymore.

In the spirit of price-unbundling run amok, Florida-based Spirit Airlines has said that beginning in August, it will charge passengers as much as $45 for a carry-on bag. The fee will be $30 if paid in advance.

This isn't just about Spirit. In a fee-copycat industry, it's possible that other airlines might follow Spirit, some members of Congress have asserted. That certainly happened with checked bags. What's next, charging to use the toilet?

Don't laugh. Ryanair, an Irish budget airline, is proposing just that. Passengers could use the onboard lavatory for about $1.55.

In an interview with the BBC, Michael O'Leary, Ryanair's chief executive, said charging for the loo could help lower fares.

Back in the United States, a group of senators led by Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), has introduced the Block Airlines' Gratuitous Fees Act, or BAG Fees Act. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House.

The Senate bill recommends amending the tax code to impose a 7.5 percent excise tax on the new carry-on fee. It is co-sponsored by Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

"This latest fee crosses the line and is a slap in the face to travelers," Schumer said in a release. "Our legislation will rein in the airlines and keep air travelers from being gouged every time they board a plane."

There's just one problem with the proposed bill. It doesn't slap the airlines. It slaps another tax on passengers.

Currently, passengers pay a federal 7.5 percent excise tax on fares. Airlines do not have to charge the excise tax on any bag fees, according to a clarification ruling by the Internal Revenue Service. The BAG Fees Act would make the carry-on fee subject to the excise tax, which is paid by passengers, according to the Treasury Department.

Unless Spirit makes the $45 inclusive of the tax, fliers would pay $3.38 on top of the carry-on fee.

"Any proposal that adds new taxes will not benefit airline customers," said David A. Castelveter, vice president of communications for the Air Transport Association of America, which represents major carriers.

Despite the extra tax burden this legislation could have on passengers, Schumer said: "It's clear our legislation will stop this practice. We plan to keep pushing it to help air travelers."

Cardin and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) have introduced a bill that would simply ban airlines from charging carry-on luggage fees.

I doubt their bill will gain any traction. Otherwise, why not ban all the airline fees that so annoy us?

Do I -- or you for that matter -- believe that this flurry of legislative outrage on our behalf will go anywhere?

Nope.

The add-on charges stick because we've become enablers of the airlines' mistreatment, poor service and fee frenzy. They nickel and dime us, and still we book. They take away services, add more fees, and we still pay.

They tell us the fees are for our own good. "This will speed up security lines, speed up boarding and reduce delays. Everyone wins," Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson said.

In the ultimate display of corporate arrogance, Spirit's chief operating officer, Ken McKenzie, said of the carry-on fee: "Bring less, pay less. It's simple."

"We believe that customers have a right to decide what they do and don't want to pay for," Pinson said. "And based on the soaring sales since the announcement, they like it because they are booking even more than before."

It is simple. We can do what our elected officials may not be able to.

If you must fly, avoid the airlines with the most fees or be reduced to taking just the clothes on your back and a snack. Although be ready in the future for a carry-on-snack fee attack.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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