US airlines have made a real meal out of charging for niceties -- like pillows, choice seats and food -- that used to be part of standard fares, but they aren't making it easy for passengers to know what fees they will be hit with when they book flights, critics say.
Whether fliers book trips through a brick-and-mortar travel agency or online, some experts claim customers are having a hard time finding real travel bargains when looking to spend some of their shrinking discretionary cash.
That complaint is part of a growing refrain from opponents of the myriad fees that airlines now impose for optional goods and services such as bag checks, meals and even seat assignments.
Critics say that while airlines do not conceal fees, they have not done enough to prepare travelers for the often significant costs that arise once a trip is underway.
"There is some information available depending on how you buy the ticket, but sorting out how it applies to you as the individual is the key. And it is not all that easy to do," said Paul Ruden, senior vice president for legal and industry affairs at the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).
Ruden said that even he, a seasoned traveler, was surprised by bag check fees on a recent leisure trip.
The airline industry, struggling after years of hardship, has been unbundling goods and services from fares in recent years. The process began in earnest a few years ago, when carriers began charging for food that had been complimentary.
In May 2008, American Airlines made headlines when it became the first carrier to charge passengers to check a single bag. American's rivals matched that fee, and the practice, while unpopular among travelers, is now common.
Airlines have gotten increasingly creative in generating new revenue, and the results are evident in their earnings.
US Airways, which this month said it would sell pillows and blankets, saw its ancillary revenue increase 45 percent in the fourth quarter from a year ago. United Airlines saw its fourth-quarter "other operating revenue" jump 17.6 percent.
Some fees, although optional, are for items and services that some passengers consider essential, said airline consultant Robert Mann.
"They're not considered part of a fare. Although for many, many customers they do represent a fee that they will be obligated to pay," he said.
MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL
Last year, when bag check fees became the norm, the US Transportation Department was concerned that airlines did not adequately notify travelers.
"It is important that carriers provide prominent and timely notice of these baggage policies and such changes," Samuel Podberesky, assistant general counsel for aviation enforcement and proceedings, said in a May 13 letter to airlines.
Podberesky said this week, however, that he believes airlines are now largely compliant with rules on posting fee information.
But ASTA's Ruden and others believe posting fees on airline web sites and in ads is inadequate when many customers book through travel agents such as Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline.
Travel agencies often must comb through airline web sites and press releases for details on fees. Ideally, carriers would send their fee information via global distribution systems (GDS) that supply information to travel agents, Ruden said.
Eventually, online travel agencies could create fee calculators for comparing total air travel costs, he said. At least one other trade group agrees with Ruden.
"They always strive to fully and easily provide full fare information, including baggage fees, etc., that's available to them," said Art Sackler, executive director of the Interactive Travel Service Association, referring to travel agencies.
"Unfortunately, oftentimes that information isn't available in a timely way. So the customers don't get that information when they should, or as easily as they should," he said.
But the Air Transport Association (ATA), an airline trade group, said carriers do plenty to notify travelers of optional fees. And he disagrees with the notion that airlines should distribute optional fee information through a GDS.
"We believe that they are forthcoming," ATA spokesman David Castelveter said. "Before you enter a transaction, you know what the total cost of your ticket is."
And as for compiling the fee data in a new way, Castelveter said that is the prerogative of the travel agencies.
"I would urge Orbitz and the like to take that initiative," he said.