Behind the Numbers

In the latest edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology, a reader wrote in asking why the Transportation Department was spending unnecessary federal funds and threatening to crack down on the airlines for abuse of “ancillary fees” when out of the millions of people who flew last year only 2,442 complained about those excessive fees.

This is yet another case of using irrelevant numbers to justify an abuse of power. Like millions of other travelers, for years I’ve resented having to pay extra to check a bag, to get a few inches more leg room, and in some cases, even having to pay extra to sit next to my wife. But did I complain to DOT?

Of course not, because I knew it would be futile. Even with DOT’s recent regulation requiring airlines to reveal all those extra fees, DOT doesn’t even have a mechanism for quantifying the complaints, let alone an accurate quantification of the cost of the fees.

So the fact that 2,442 passengers did complain only reveals that a small number were angry enough and had enough time to make a fruitless complaint. Also, the numbers are from last year, before DOT issued its ruling and provided a more open way to lodge a complaint. In addition, last year’s complaint numbers – and this year’s, when they become available – reveal little or nothing about the number of passengers inconvenienced or forced to pay additional fees at the last moment or for the total additional costs and aggravation imposed on airline passengers.

Another factor is that in a large number of cities and towns, there’s no effective competition. Take Cedar City. The only choice is Delta. In neighboring St. George (an hour drive, one way), we have American, Delta, and United, but there’s still no choice, because each of those airlines flies to radically different destinations.

Of course, since Aviation Week & Space Technology is an industry trade publication, there was no apparent comment by the magazine on the misleading figures. Now, I may have missed an article or two on the “ancillary fees” issue over the years, but I’ve been reading it since I was a Congressional staffer in the 1970s, and I don’t recall that much discussion about this issue. Even if I did miss such stories, allowing such a brazen misuse of numbers is poor journalism at best.

The other aspect of the letter that’s equally disturbing is the direct implication that neither the government nor the airlines should address problems unless lots of people complain. No reason to change unless people bitch, even if there’s no effective way to complain? And when there’s no real competition, more often than not? That’s just another example of corporate America at its worst.

15 thoughts on “Behind the Numbers”

  1. KTL says:


    What has amazed me even more is that every lawyer and politician of every stripe has been inconvenienced by airlines for many, many years; and I have yet to see a resulting backlash to the airlines in the form of lawsuits or meaningful legislation. Surely, the irritation with airlines would be bipartisan one would think?

    Even if the fees didn’t come out of pocket to those lawyers and politicians, the time lost to delays, cancelled flights, and sitting on the tarmac would seem to strike a nerve. But no, this has been going on for a very long time.

    1. The problem with attorneys is that most of them bill their clients for business travel, and much of politicians’ travel is paid by either by government or by campaign funds.

  2. Bill says:

    Not only are the lawyers and politicians not bothered by the fees so are the prime customers for the airlines – business. I was unlucky enough to fly enough for business that I got a consolation prize of status. I got so used to upgrades to first class that I got shamefully annoyed when it didn’t happen. In first class, the fees are included and there is very little hassle. There is no need to rush the gate because there is plenty of space for your carry ons. The only reason to hurry is to get your drink quicker.
    Even then most business people have little or no say in what will happen. The people who heavily donate to the politicians are the ones who have a say and they don’t fly commercial.

  3. Mayhem says:

    It’s remarkable how many things in the modern world have what I call the illusion of competition.
    Where I am, we tend to have a lot of duopolies, who allegedly compete, and have well marketed price match guarantees etc,

    But when you look closer, they don’t – one sells thing in say packets of six, the other in packets of eight, therefore different products and no need to match. The actual number of directly competing products is extremely small.
    Or airlines, which don’t go to the same destinations.
    Or insurance companies, who insist on tailoring every package to an individual so you can’t shop around and compare.
    And then there’s all the hidden fees they bolt on. Payment surcharges that are near impossible to avoid paying. Optional extras, like sitting together when booking multiple tickets. The enshittification of what were once useful services, hiding them behind paywalls.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Look at your phone or utility bills; they’ll have assorted fees added on to the basic advertised rate.

      Some of those fees end up in government pockets. Maybe doing whatever supposedly worthwhile thing they’re supposed to do, maybe not.

      Everyone in business or government wants a steady stream of as much of your money as possible on a regular basis. As far as they’re concerned, that, rather than actual goods or services, is most of what they’re there for.

      There are exceptions, and that harsh characterization certainly does not apply equally to all. But it’s a mode of BS that’s a lot like most “satisfaction” surveys, which I strongly suspect are turned into advertising (as if a self-selected survey was statistically valid, which it isn’t) or resume padding for senior managers or their justifying what they’re doing anyway. A real survey should IMO not be trying to steer you, and have more difficult-to-evaluate text entries rather than only multiple choice. Or it should have followup if you’re clearly less than satisfied.

      That said, I favor minimally (like safety only) regulated capitalist exploiter pigs over regulators and collectivists and socialists. The liberty to be deceptive just short of outright crooked is part of better liberties too, and I’d rather take the bad side of liberty than the good side of regulation.

      1. Postagoras says:

        There you go again, RH. You have been convinced that the intangible of “liberty” requires you to a live a life of economic servitude. That Kool-Aid must be delicious!

        Me, I live in a society, not an economy. A society that includes other people, even you. A society that has a way of sharing the decision-making so that no one has to obey you and your ideas… or me and my ideas.

        1. R. Hamilton says:

          It is not economic servitude to carry your own weight, nor to read the fine print under the assumption that everyone that can (give or take a few with a record of good behavior, mostly small local businesses) will stick it to you at least every way the law allows.

          I do NOT say zero regulation, but I’d rather err on the side of underprotecting than overprotecting, which is not only expensive for those who don’t need overprotection, but carried to extremes, becomes an endlessly growing list of do’s and don’ts.

          Be libertarian or be owned. That would be very shared decision making, just excluding the decision to give government ever more power.

          I’ll say for the 100th (at least) time, the only legitimate political ideologies for free people are libertarian or conservative, and even between those, neither should be trusted: the libertarians because they have no sense about things like borders, and the conservatives because they do tend to attract social authoritarians (we need a few to avoid chaos, but not too many).

          1. Postagoras says:

            And I will reply for the 100th time, that your libertarian society is a fantasy.

            Democratic societies are a reality all over the world. Democratic society is so flexible that people can live in it yet begrudge its benefits, yearning for utopian nonsense.

      2. Mayhem says:

        >That said, I favor minimally (like safety only) regulated capitalist exploiter pigs over regulators and collectivists and socialists.

        And there’s where your ideals run into problems.

        Unrestricted capitalism is a recipe for slavery and poisoning the environment in the name of maximising profit for the few. Privatising profits and socialising losses as the phrase goes. Regulations are the way that society restricts someone’s ability to do that. Safety regulations are the start, but they inherently get more complex over time as the exploiters abuse edge cases and the rules need to be adjusted to cope. Environmental regulations are usually safety regulations extended to the safety of society.
        I like my rivers to be clean and drinkable rather than black with coal dust or literally on fire. I like my air breathable and see through rather than laced with chemicals or choked with pollutants. I like my food to be tasty and nourishing, rather than empty calories and poisons.
        I favour restricting the ability for producers to do what they like in the name of profits, like replacing milk with melamine or beef with horse.

        And that’s a battle we are constantly fighting, because the ones that make it necessary are constantly trying to cheat. It’s human nature, cheating is literally how we evolved. The trick is to make people cheat in positive ways like “efficiencies” and not in exploitative ways.

  4. Darcherd says:

    It’s never been clear to me what the concern over the ‘additional charges’ that airlines now make. Is it that people feel like they are paying for something that once was ‘free’? Of course, the services and features were never free, simply bundled into the overall price, but people never see it like that. Personally, I’m happy to pay those extra charges because it means I’m only paying for those features and services I need. For example, I’m happy to pay for checked baggage because it avoids the risk of not being able to find space in the overhead for a carry-on bag, plus it allows me to bring my trusty Swiss Army Knife along whenever I travel. Conversely, I don’t pay for in-flight WiFi since I don’t use it. This whole system makes a whole lot more sense than everyone having to foot the bill for features and services that only some passengers use.

    Now if airlines are actually using such charges to pad their profit margins on already overpriced tickets, that’s something else, but the base price of airfare has come down so much since the ‘good old days’ of the 1970’s under full regulation that I have to believe the current ticket prices really are competitive.

    1. The problem wasn’t entirely about the fees, but about the fact that the airlines concealed them by advertising a given fare without revealing that certain services and/or taxes weren’t included in the advertised price.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        That’s a rare point where I’d agree, to an extent. More transparency is always good. (sometimes difficult, as in comparing a doctor that takes harder cases and therefore has a lower success rate, with one that only takes easy cases) Certainly all fees that are always included should be in the advertised price (although they should also be visible separately outside of ads, as a reminder that not all those fees are levied by the business).

        Problem is how to fit all the fine print into an ad. Some of that is deceptive, but some of that is just too big for a sound bite or the equivalent in other media. And many or most think they’re doing well shopping one number; picking the numbers that apply to them (when checked bags and various other services are separate charges) and shopping those…well I suppose there could be services that could help with that, which might be an opportunity if someone wanted to pursue it. Like if one of the travel deal sites could let you specify just what optional services you wanted and compare total ticket+extras cost accordingly.

  5. Bill says:

    There are several problems with the extra fees. The first are the odd fees where the cost of doing business is tacked onto the price of the ticket and justified as a fee due to an unusual circumstance. But that fee never goes away when the unusual circumstance ends. Other businesses besides the airlines are bad about this but why is there always a processing fee especially when the process is the only way to buy the service or it is cheaper for everyone involved than going in person?
    The second problem are the fees that make it difficult to compare prices. When you go to a website and the item costs $200 but by the time fees are added the cost is now $300. How do compare the different options when trying to figure out the best option for you? Is the $275 ticket cheaper than the $200 ticket because of fees?
    The third problem is that the fees change people’s behavior oddly. This is especially true in terms of checked vs carry on luggage. It does cost the airline some money to have baggage handlers, etc. But this means people overstuff carryon luggage to the point that the bags won’t fit into the overhead compartments and need to be checked at the gate. How is that cheaper? Plus since there are some bags always, the airlines can’t get rid of checked luggage and so have to have all those people anyway.
    I agree that a-la-carte options make sense for truly optional items. But not for getting two seats or more together so that people can sit together. Not only does it make price comparison more difficult it also complicates the process when trying to figure out what people have paid for and what hasn’t been paid for.

  6. Sandie says:

    I am not sure if my comment is exactly on topic, but here it is..
    I just paid for my family to fly from Vancouver to Ottawa and return at $1600 for all. It takes 5hrs plus 2 before through security.
    If they were to drive it would take days, and either several drivers or nightly hotels at a significant cost. The gas alone would be over $1000. Yes, that would be less if you drive straight through, but not with hotels.. and not including wear and tear on your vehicle.
    We all complain about airplane prices, but safety, convenience and time is worth something.
    We can nickle and dime ourselves to unsafe travelling or pay for a good service.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Except those that recall service from the days of at least longer domestic flights being in aircraft larger than a 737 or Airbus equivalent, find the service lacking (no meals, just snacks), and the seating cramped.

      There is still some widebody domestic service, but that’s mostly to/from Hawaii, or between hubs, not nonstop between non-hubs, and there’s a massive price premium for it usually. I’m fine with some price premium, but well above 2x is a bit much. So I take the cattle car flights, and try to get early seating so I have a left side aisle seat to ease a cranky leg.

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