The New Frontier of Airline Fees: Overhead Bin Space and Seat Assignments
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Following Frontier Airlines’ announcement this past Monday that it will now charge its passengers for placing their carry-on bags in its overhead bins and reserving seats in advance, TPG Assistant Editor Melanie Wynne examines the present landscape of similarly ridiculous airline fees – and finds the worst offenders.
In yet another irritating step toward entirely fee-dependent fares, low-cost flight carrier Frontier Airlines just announced that starting this past Monday, April 28, 2014, it will now charge its passengers two new extra fees – one to place carry-on bags in the overhead bin in Economy class, and another to make advanced seat assignments. To account for these changes, Frontier says it’s lowering its base fares by an average of 12%.
The struggling Frontier was purchased last December by a Phoenix-based equity firm called Indigo Partners (the same company that is a big investor in low-cost-carriers Spirit Airlines, Tiger Airways and Wizz Air) and its new president, Barry Biffle, spent almost nine years as Chief Marketing Officer of Spirit. If Spirit’s fee-ridden (and lucrative) track record is any indication, Frontier might just be headed in all-fee, all-the-time direction.
Charging for overhead bin space is nothing new
Frontier already charges between $15-25 for each checked bag. Their new carry-on bag storage fees in Economy class would range from $20 when paid online at the time of booking to $50 when paid at the airport. These fees are waived for members of Ascent and Summit, the top two elite-status tiers of Frontier’s frequent flyer program. The good news? Free of charge, any Frontier passenger can still store one carry-on bag apiece under the seat in front of them…that is to say, the spacious, not-at-all-cramped Economy seat in front of them.
Last July, Frontier actually started charging carry-on fees higher than these ($25 when paid online and $100 if paid at the airport) to anyone booking their flights via online travel agencies (OTAs) such as Travelocity, Orbitz and Expedia. Since then, Frontier has dropped Expedia altogether, as Frontier became fed up with Expedia charging an average of $25 for each Frontier flight booked through its portal, and Expedia was disgruntled about Frontier’s extra fees.
However, while charging you to lift and store your own carry-on baggage might seem an especially outrageous move, it’s not a decision made out of the blue. Rather than being an industry vanguard, Frontier is simply the latest of the low-cost airlines to charge for overhead bin space – other airlines with this same policy are Allegiant and Spirit.
Allegiant. This full-service, low-cost travel portal charges its airline passengers a non-refundable fee per carry-on bag, per segment (e.g., one take-off and one landing). Its mind-boggling baggage fee chart presents a different array of fares for every single airport/destination it serves, ranging from $10-30 when paid online at the time of booking to $11-43 when paid online pre-departure and $50-75 at the airport. The only way you’ll get your bag fee(s) back are if your flight is cancelled or the airline loses your bag. (As if anyone would pay an airline for the privilege of having their bag lost!)
Spirit Airlines. Spirit goes a step further, charging its passengers for each piece of their carry-on baggage regardless of whether of not it’s stored beneath a seat or in the overhead bin. Its sliding scale of fees ranges from $26 when paid online during booking to a whopping $100 when paid last-minute at the gate. Yes, you read that right: $100. When flying Spirit, it pays to be organized in advance – but even when you’re organized in advance, you still pay.
A precedent for advance seat assignment fares, too
Though they’re far from the leaders of the pack in this regard, either, Frontier will now also charge its passengers who want to make advance seat assignments: $3 when paid while booking online and $8 at check-in. Passengers who don’t want to pay these fees will be assigned whatever seats remain when it’s time to board.
For select seats in the front of the plane, Frontier will also now charge an extra $5-15 per flight, depending on when seat selections are made – during online booking or thereafter. Seats called Stretch that have an extra 5 to 7 inches of legroom will cost $15-50 per flight segment, depending on the distance flown; connecting passengers will have to pay each fee twice. Passengers who buy more expensive, fully-refundable Classic Plus fares will get Stretch seats for free as well as one checked bag and one free carry-on bag, and the same benefits will be extended to Ascent and Summit members.
While Alaska, Southwest and Virgin America don’t charge fees for reserving seats in advance, other US airlines who do charge for all its advance seat assignments are:
AirTran. Advance seat assignments on Discount Coach and Sale fares cost $10-30 depending on where seat selections are made within the plane, heading front to back. Advance seat reservations are complimentary in three instances: when requested by A+ elite members, when made in Business Class, and when made on Regular Coach fares in Y, B or M fare classes. Passengers who opt not to purchase advance seat assignments at the time of booking will still be able to select/purchase seats online from 24 hours to 45 minutes before departure, or at the gate upon check-in. (Passengers with segments operated by Southwest Airlines can check-in online from 24 hours to 1 hour prior to scheduled flight, and will be given a priority boarding number at check-in.)
Allegiant. Reserving a seat on each segment of an Allegiant flight costs between $5-75, depending on the length of the flight. Add $26 for a carry-on bag you’d like to stow in your overhead bin and then factor in taxes, and a low base fare on this carrier can rise pretty quickly.
Spirit. If you let Spirit choose your seats, it’s free. But choose your own and you’ll pay between $1-50, depending on when seat selections are made (during online booking or thereafter) and the length of the flight. If you want a Big Front Seat, a roomier seat at the front of the plane with more legroom and no middle seat, you’ll pay $12 to $150.
Does Frontier offer full disclosure of its fees?
If you book a Frontier flight directly through their own site, FlyFrontier.com, you’re able to pay the airline’s lowest baggage and seat-reservation fees. However, consumers who choose to book Frontier flights through OTAs are not given the option of selecting their seats or paying their baggage fees in advance, missing out on the lowest prices. On the OTAs that I checked, the existence of baggage fees is generally mentioned pre-booking, but detailed information is generally hidden away behind a tiny click-through link. Consumers could easily think they’d paid their full Frontier fare and then find themselves slammed at the gate with $50-100 fees per carry-on, as well as seats spread out amongst the plane; either would be a particular burden for families.
In order to explore the process of booking a Frontier flight through an OTA, I used the sample itinerary of LAX-DEN, May 16-20, 2014 (DEN is Frontier’s hub airport) and used three OTAs – Travelocity, Orbitz and CheapoAir.
Travelocity. I was surprised to find that Travelocity doesn’t list Frontier as an airline choice.
Travelocity has apparently also stopped displaying Frontier fares. In addition to the sample itinerary, I checked Travolocity for roundtrips on the same dates to/from SFO-DEN, PDX-DEN, SEA-DEN, DEN-CLE and DEN-MCO – but no luck. At this writing, Frontier flights don’t appear to be offered by Travelocity.
Orbitz. This OTA does display Frontier flights (I checked all of the same itineraries that I did on Travelocity), but baggage fees (and advance seat assignments, as well) can’t be paid through its portal. When shown a sample itinerary, a line appears in the bottom right: “Baggage fees are NOT charged at booking.”
The “baggage fees” portion of the line is hyperlinked, and leads to a list of baggage fees and how/when to pay them to get the best fare. They show that if you book a Basic fare (rather than Economy) through Orbitz, you’ll automatically pay at least $35 to take a single piece of luggage with you – and only if you call Frontier ahead of time to pay this fee. And unlike Frontier’s own at-gate carry-on fee of $50, this list shows the at-gate fee as $100. I suppose this is Frontier’s none-too-subtle way of letting consumers know they’d like them to book through their website instead of Orbitz.
CheapOAir. My sample Frontier itinerary shows up on this OTA, and all taxes are shown up front. At first, however, there is no mention of any possible Frontier fees.
When you choose an itinerary and continue to the next screen, two links appear in the bottom left: “Fare rules” and “Baggage fees.”
Clicking through on “Baggage fees,” I’m taken to a screen that does shows baggage fees for flights both within and outside of the US, but none are specified as either checked or carry-on baggage fees. A consumer could easily be surprised at the gate with a $50 carry-on fee.
And is Frontier really lowering its base fares?
It appears to be the case – at least in relation to Spirit, its main competitor.
For the same roundtrip from/to LAX-DEN, May 16-20, 2014, the base fare on Frontier is $141.39.
On Spirit, this same itinerary shows a base fare of $156.77. Factoring in taxes, the total on Frontier adds up to $174, while on Spirit, it’s $195.98.
Make your voice heard
At present, it doesn’t appear as though Jet Blue, Southwest, American, Delta, United or US Airways are going to start charging for overhead bin storage and/or advance seat assignments – but it could just be a matter of time.
Before free access to the overhead bin is gone forever – or we see the emergence of a whole new aggravating trend in airline fees – I encourage consumers to vote with their wallets and switch to carriers who charge fewer fees and offer more disclosure about those they do charge. Voice your displeasure via social media to educate your peers about these insulting charges and to let other carriers know that needless fees won’t be tolerated.
Here are some social media resources to help you voice your opinions about airline fees:
Frontier Airlines on Twitter (@FlyFrontier) and Facebook (flyfrontier)
AirTran on Twitter (@AirTran) and Facebook (AirTranAirways)
Allegiant Air on Twitter (@AllegiantTravel) and Facebook (Allegiant)
Spirit Airlines on Twitter (@SpiritAirlines)
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