10 Worst Ways Airlines Rip You Off to Save Money

(Image credit: AP)

I’m a compulsive traveler. Over the years, I’ve consumed a veritable buffet of airline rides on journeys that took me anywhere from across the state to across the globe.

The downside of all this is that I’m cheap. That means cheap airfare, which means exposure to some of the worst the industry has to offer.

Reading the news about Continental this morning reminded me of all the extra suffering airlines put consumers through to cut costs. Continental executives stated in a recent memo that “the airline industry is in a crisis.” Well, duh. The real problem is that the industry’s corporate remedies are becoming increasingly creative in all the wrong ways.

Here are 10 of their most consumer-unfriendly ideas.

10. Not serving food. Poking at ham aspic with a plastic fork was a fun way to pass time on a flight, back in the day.

9. Charging $5 to rent cruddy airline headphones. Then listen to Celine Dion yowling her way through layers of white noise. The honor for this bad idea goes to the now-defunct America West.

8. Flying more slowly. Argh. Don’t we fly in the first place to get somewhere quickly?

7. Conducting lay-offs, then overworking existing staff to the point of belligerence. A couple of years ago, I went to the back galley of an American flight to get a cup of water. Four flight attendants were clustered inside, staring at me with a slit-eyed wariness usually associated with prison guards. When I asked for a cup of water, they told me to get back in my seat. Now. The seatbelt light wasn’t on, but I scurried back anyway, fearing ambush.

6. Outsourcing flights by partnering with a zillion other airlines. Flying four different carriers gets you from Denver to Delhi on the cheap. Unfortunately, they often lose your baggage on the way. Sometimes they even lose you–it took a good friend four days to get to Bangalore after a series of delays resulted in nearly as many missed flights.

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5. Make seats narrow enough to pierce human hipbones. That way, airlines can save costs fitting in one more seat per row. I saw a heavyset man visibly sweat as he tried to negotiate his bottom into one airline’s ultraslim seats–before a 10-hour flight. I know the Powers that Be want Americans to lose weight and all, but sheesh.

4. Weighing your carry-on bag to keep it under 5 pounds. On a recent flight, Vietnam Airways literally wouldn’t let us carry bags that weighed more than a chicken carcass. There was no surcharge–you just had to check whatever weighed more. This seems less like a gas-saving device than a way to employ extraneous authority figures, but still worth mentioning.

3. Avoid maintenance on parts of the plane not 100% essential to flight. Such as shocks. United Airlines has been using this particular practice for years.

2. Charge an extra $15 for checked bags. Remember the days when they considered you a terrorist for NOT having a checked bag? I guess fuel costs have overridden our once-precious Homeland Security program.

1. Sell emergency row seats as “Economy Plus” for $20 more. Arrange your computer booking system so it’s easy to accidentally hit the Yes, Upgrade Me to Economy Plus! button by accident. Then, once you’re on the flight, ask you whether you’re ok with sitting next to an emergency exit.

I know there’s more. Does anyone have any additional bad money-saving devices I can add to this list?

  • U.S. Airways announcement that they will no longer even give out peanuts. Because I’m sure that peanut budget was just costing them millions. Puh-lease. Midwest bakes chocolate chip cookies right on the plane, I don’t see them trying to keep their heads above bankruptcy.

  • Joe

    I agree with everything you said… but regarding #4; this might make sense. I’ve often wondered what would happen if a bunch of people going to a brick or lead bar convention all got on the same plane with their samples in their carry-ons.

    I’m just waiting until they say you can only have one bag, not a computer bag and a rolling bag, thus forcing you to check your rolling bag and pay the $15. Or when they install credit card readers on the overhead bins and charge $15 to use it. The could also install bars under the seats to keep you from putting a large backpack under there thus forcing you to use the pay-per-use overhead bins.

    I should stop… when these go into effect, you will all blame me!

  • Charles Fairbrother Jr

    Dear Pundit,
    Interesting article. Thank you for sharing your insight. However, your admission of being “cheap” is the source of your undoing. As are most travelers these days, you are expecting Mercedes-Benz service and amenities at Volkswagen prices. You demand to pay absolute rock-bottom prices and then complain that you had to give something up in the process. Don’t like paying bare-bones price for your economy seat? Pay full price and upgrade to business class! Your points number 10, 9, 7, 5, 4, 2, and 1 would all be addressedand eliminated.
    Regarding point # 8; airlines have pulled back the throttles by a mere 0.05 mach at most. That translates out to a ballpark figure of less than 10 minutes flight time on a transcontinental flight. Less skin friction drag at high speeds, lower power output from engines, but not a huge reduction in speed. It’s like you driving 55 on the highway instead 65. As long as traffic is moving, it really doesn’t get you to your destination that much later.
    Point #6; again, the price you pay for being cheap. Book on a reputable carrier and you should be okay. Want to get to Vietnam with minimal hassle? Connect through Narita with All Nippon Airways. They will get you throughout S.E. Asia with excellent reliability. You’ll pay a little more, but you’ll remove the hassle.
    Point #3; deferred maintainence. Cost cutting measure. Good point. Safety is never compromised, but dispatch reliability does go down. Again, if passengers were willing to pay a higher premium for their seat, then airline profit margins wouldn’t be so squeezed, then there wouldn’t be the need to look to squeeze the proverbial blood from the turnip.

  • There have been a number of sarcastic responses to airlines’ recent obsession for charging for everything they can.Here’s what appeared in The Onion:

    What new revenue streams are the other airlines implementing?

    * United—$25 seatbelt rental fee for passengers who didn’t bring their own
    * Midwest—$35 to sit in the passenger compartment
    * JetBlue—New fee structure for wait times on runway: $150 for under 2 hours, $75 for under 4 hours, etc.
    * Frontier Airlines—$20 penalty if passenger is not wearing coonskin cap
    * Continental—$100 reduced-fare tickets for standing-room-only passengers
    * Southwest—Ten bucks to touch the captain
    * Virgin—$30 fee for booking a flight with another carrier
    * Delta—$50 to chip in for gas

  • Air Pirate

    Nice article. You know, it is passengers like you that give the airline industry a bad name. The airline game is extraoridinarily complex; few people realize that airlines struggle to make a profit year after year. This profit margin is razor thin; any other company in the US with comparable capital could not sustain. You think the airline executives are lining their pockets? Think again. While they are well-paid, just like any other company, these execs are not raking in billions of dollars a year like WalMart, for example. While Walmart makes billions in sales a year, they piss on their employees. The problem with our nation is that consumers are willing to look away as long as a company is giving us rock bottom prices. The average WalMart employee struggles to live day to day due to low pay and zero to piss poor benefits. You think the executives of Walmart care? How about the airlines? Airlines actually pay employees a decent salary and with excellent benefits. Airlines care about and take care of thier employees. Why should they care about employees? Just like any other business, it is fueled by everyone from the person who mops the floors, cleans the lavatories, fuels the aircraft, and the people that work onboard to get you there safely. However, this comes at a price. With the capital that is invested in gates, terminals, aircraft, and others, the costs of fuel is what makes or breaks an airline. It is a known fact that jets fly on jet fuel, which is essentially kerosene; which is, you guessed it, a refined oil product. With fuel expenses being the single largest operating expense, any move to offset this expense by an airline is expected. Now we have passengers moan and complain about the lack of service or just feeling like the airline doesn’t “care”. This isn’t 1972; no more cabins filled with smoke, no more flight attendants in short skirts offering you premium free meals, no more luxury services offered by the airlines to the paying passenger. So you’re complaining about service, but yet on average the ticket prices are lower than they have ever been. Why is that? Because the market has demanded lower, lower, lower prices from carriers and the fallout has resulted in poor numbers in legacy carriers. The airline industry is a cut-throat game; companies will die. That is the natural cycle; low demand, airlines will slash capacity and mothball aircraft. When the economy swings, the very same aircraft will be put back into service. I agree with Charles on many issues… you being cheap is your undoing. If you want the service you have come to expect, spend the bucks and get first class. Otherwise, stop whining and sit in economy with the rest of the sardines.

  • Some airlines now charge you to check-in at the airport, encouraging you instead to check-in online. I’m already annoyed that I’ve got to pay for baggage as there’s no way I’d go on holiday without a change of clothes but paying again to use the check in desk really takes the biscuit.

  • windowseat

    Northwest is now splitting groups. Aisle and window seats are considered premium so if you want to sit with your family members, plan to fork out $20 bucks more per seat. I called to see if they could put us all together and was told…that although we booked more than 6 weeks in advance, we could not reserve seats until 24 hours prior to departure..that they could not see the assigned seats BUT if you would like to move your party into two middle seats one row apart they would gladly charge you $20 bucks a piece to do so.

    With the flight 60% full..the online seating chart shows 4 seats available. Nothing together, all center row. But for a $20 fee per move, you can buy seats next to eat other.

    Seems that the airlines is now holding seats hostage…

  • I just hate how some airlines can be real sneaky about the way they do business, I just wish they would up front about all their charges, fucking crooks!

  • How about when they cancel a flight due to supposed mechanical trouble because there aren’t enough passengers so they can squeeze you into another flight? I’ve been screwed like this so many times and so many other ways I just didn’t know what to do any more so I made a website about it. http://www.worstairlines.com. Please come by and post your airline nightmares and read about mine.

  • John

    And how about American that would charge you $1500 for a Paris-Miami, but change the departure date by 1 day, the same seat is now worth $5000. Isn’t that great? When I see people defending the airlines….they must be part of the racket. By the way, Walmart does not change prices depending on which day of the week it is!

  • Terri

    What about the fact that they won’t refund your money for a canceled ticket, but they’ll re-sell your seat AND keep your money! In other words, they get paid twice for the same seat!