Welcome to the June 2009 issue of "Smart Traveler". The newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.

Airlines Add Fees on Top of Fees

As if charging $15 to check a bag weren't enough, two airlines are asking for $5 more beginning this summer if you pay at the check-in counter – a fee on top of a fee.

Of course, you could always pay your baggage fee from home. The airlines call it the "online discount."

If airlines can get away with that, what's next? Rather than raise fares in the middle of a recession, they're piling on fees to make money – fees for bags, fees to get through the line faster, even fees for certain seats. United Airlines alone expects to rake in more than $1 billion this year in fees ranging from baggage to accelerated frequent-flier awards. That's more than 5 percent of its revenue.

The most likely new fees are those that some airline, somewhere, has tried. Fees usually originate with one or two airlines, and competitors watch to see whether passengers accept them or revolt. For instance:

 – US Airways and United are hitting passengers up for $5 to pay their baggage fees at the airport instead of online. United implemented the fee June 10, while US Airways will put it into effect July 9.

 – If you want to select an exit row seat on AirTran and enjoy the extra legroom, expect to cough up $20.

 – Allegiant Air, a smaller national discount airline, charges a $13.50 "convenience fee" for online purchases, even though most other carriers encourage purchases direct from their Web site.

 – European discounter Ryanair charges for something everyone has to do if they want to fly: check in. It's 5 euros, or about $6.75, to check in online, double for passengers who pay at the airport. Ryanair plans to eliminate airport check-in desks.

 – Spanish airline Vueling charges a fee to pick a seat. Any seat at all. A "basic" seat behind the wing runs 3 euros. For 30 euros, travelers can choose an aisle or window seat and guarantee that the middle seat will remain empty.

As recently as last year, most fliers only came across a fee if they checked three bags or sent a minor child across the country. Most people, most of the time, traveled fee-free.

But that began to change last spring. Spiking jet fuel prices and passenger resistances to higher fares started airlines looking around the cabin for things they could charge extra for. Passengers are finding it's a lot easier for the airlines to add the fees than to take them away.

They're going to keep nudging them up until they run into market resistance. That's what happened at US Airways. It tried for seven months to charge for soda and water but gave up in March after no other airlines took up the idea. And Delta scaled back a plan to charge $50 to check a second bag on all international flights. Instead, the charge will apply only on flights to Europe.

United has been a leader in finding ways to charge passengers separately for things. Some are for perks coach travelers used to get for free, like food. Others are new services altogether, like United's door-to-door luggage service via FedEx.

Airlines say fees are part of "a la carte" pricing that allows them to hold the line on fares. Rather than charge higher fares to everyone, they say, passengers can pick and choose the extras they want to pay for.

Ideas for fees don't come out of thin air. Last month in Miami most of the big U.S. carriers and many overseas airlines attended a conference devoted to a-la-carte pricing and fees. (Motto, next to a cartoon of an airliner: "Discovering the flying store.")

Some fees stretch the imagination: The CEO of European discount carrier Ryanair has floated the idea of charging for lavatory use and sick bags. But even he hasn't gone ahead with what appears to have been a publicity-seeking gambit, and no other carrier has suggested such a charge.  Still, there's no rule against such a fee in the U.S., according to the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Delta Air Lines Inc. and AirTran Holdings Inc. say they have no plans to tack a fee on to carry-on bags, an idea that would almost certainly annoy passengers just getting used to paying for checked baggage. It would also put airline workers in the awkward position of deciding whether that bag on your arm is a big purse, presumably free, or a lumpy suitcase. Already, fees for checked bags have made finding space in the overhead bin tougher.

And even if carry-on bags stay free, United is already offering a "Premier Line" check-in for $25. It allows fliers to get through check-in and security faster and board earlier.

Quick Airport-Screening Service Shuts Down

Clear, Which Let Fliers Bypass Lines, Couldn't Settle Debt

Frequent fliers shuffled back into long security checkpoint lines in airports across the country  after Verified Identity Pass shut down Clear, its expedited screening service.

New York-based Verified Identity Pass ceased operations and notified its members in an e-mail. It said on its Web site that it was "unable to negotiate an agreement with its senior creditor."

Verified Identity Pass began enrolling people in 2005 and had more than 260,000 members who could bypass usual security lines at 21 airports, including Dulles and Reagan National. They were still subject, however, to the same security procedures as other fliers, including removing shoes and walking through detectors. The passengers were part of the federal Registered Traveler program, which requires that travelers divulge personal information and pass background checks in return for expedited screening.

One Clear competitor, Chantilly-based FLO, said it was awaiting direction from the Transportation Security Administration.

"FLO is currently working with other participants in the industry as well as the Transportation Security Administration to analyze the implications of this announcement and to formulate a plan for the advancement of the program," the company said in a statement.

Clear and FLO were accepted at some of the same airports, including Dulles and Reagan National. The companies had disputed who had to pay for the lane infrastructure in airports where both programs operated.

The TSA said it had no comment and described the Clear program as "a market-driven, private-sector venture."

Verified Identity Pass said on its Web site that it will not issue refunds. That leaves members like Richard Hefner, 28, an engineer from Los Gatos, Calif., out of luck. He said he has been a Clear member since February 2007 and was paid through February 2011.

Steven Brill, Verified Identity Pass's chief executive until he left in February, said he did not know why the company ceased operating.

"What I do know for sure, however, is that the need for intelligent risk management hasn't diminished and that programs like Clear should have a role in our future, as we try to use common sense to balance security needs with freedom and the free flow of commerce," he said in a statement.

Clear used fingerprints and iris scans to identify its members.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said he had worries about the security of members' personal information and the possibility of identity theft. Verified Identity Pass's acting chief executive Jim Moroney did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but said in a conference call yesterday with the TSA that the company was in the process of deleting data from its system, according to Airports Council International-North America.

Airline to charge $2 to $12 depending on length of flight, type of connection

Southwest Airlines Co. will start charging for Internet access on board four of its planes.The airline said Monday it will charge $2 to $12 depending on the length of the flight and the type of device passengers use to connect to the Internet.

Southwest has been testing in-flight Internet access on the four planes for several months free of charge to passengers with a laptop or other device.

Southwest and other airlines see potential revenue in charging passengers to surf the Web or check e-mail during flights.

Delta Air Lines Inc. and AMR Corp.'s American Airlines have announced plans to install Internet access on more than 300 planes each, although far fewer have been completed. Both are charging up to $12.95 — less on shorter flights and for using a handheld device instead of a laptop computer.

The Ups and Downs of Online Check-In

Now and then the airlines' inclination to automate everything, eradicate customer service interactions, and leave the traveler entirely on their own once a credit card has been dunned (am I exaggerating? You tell me...) results in win-win innovations that benefit everyone.

The recent rush to offer online check-in and printable boarding passes on the day of travel is one such serendipitous trend; the airlines seem to love it, and travelers are flocking and clicking in droves to choose seats and print out boarding passes from the comfort of their home or office.

Why, and What's in It for Me?
There is real money to be saved by airlines when large numbers of passengers check in online from home, from paper costs to personnel. If you think this isn't significant, consider this: US Airways is currently offering 1000 bonus miles to anyone who checks in online. The airlines would really like to see everyone start doing this routinely.

What is in it for travelers?
The simplest and most straightforward benefit of the online check-in is bypassing the lines and hassle at check-in counters and kiosks. In the ideal situation, you must be traveling on an e-ticket, and without luggage to check. You arrive at the airport with a boarding pass in hand, which will include a bar code containing, essentially, your reservation. When you reach the airport, head directly for the security checkpoints, continue to your gate, and board -- done. The boarding pass you printed at home and your ID will gain you passage right to your seat.

However, while the benefits for easing your trek through the airport are clear, the trend does almost revolutionize one critical aspect of traveler comfort when flying -- seating assignments. When you do check in online, you get the pick of the litter with respect to seat availability at that moment. And the sooner you check, the better. As a result, the service has set off a rush of its own as travelers are blitzing airline Web sites on the day of travel to secure the best possible seats.

 (There are restrictions on how far in advance you may check in; read on for more on this score.)

 Is this a big deal? Let's look at a revealing test case -- Southwest. As many travelers know, Southwest keeps costs down by issuing no pre-assigned seats; it's a first-come, first-served world at the airport. However, they do assign people to Group A, B, or C, and board in that order. A recent traveler on Southwest noted that most of the folks who did not check in online before heading to the airport were likely to be in Group C, thus getting the last and worst seat selection. Southwest permits check in beginning 24 hours prior to your scheduled departure.

 What Kind of Tickets, What Do I Need, When Can I Check In?
In almost all cases, you must be traveling on an e-ticket to use the service. For tickets purchased directly from the airline Web site or airline reservations agent, you can check in using your frequent flier number, ticket confirmation number, the e-ticket number, or the number on the credit card used to purchase the ticket.

 For bookings made elsewhere, such as with online booking engines or travel agents, you can usually do the same, although some airlines, including Delta, require that you are a frequent flier member in order to log in to use the service.

Rules on how long in advance of your flight you can check in varies considerably. Some airlines allow passengers to check-in online within 12-24 hours of departure time to as late as 30 minutes prior to scheduled departure time. Others require that check-in occur on the actual day of travel, meaning after 12:01AM on the day of travel, and may stop accepting online check-ins at 60 to180 minutes before flight time.

Since international travel usually requires that you arrive at your gate earlier than domestic travel, check-in deadlines are sometimes earlier online as well.

When traveling multiple leg trips, so long as you are flying on a single itinerary (and not one you cobbled together from several sources), you will be prompted to print individual boarding passes for each leg of your trip. Your bags will be checked through to your final destination.In most cases, if you are holding paper tickets, you cannot check in online.

 Which Airlines, Which Flights, Where?
The majority of sizeable domestic airlines, offer the service, including include Delta, United, US Airways, Song, Ted, American, Northwest, Continental, Alaska, Independence, Jet Blue, Southwest, America West, Spirit, ATA, Frontier, Hawaiian -- you get the picture, it's almost everyone, if not quite -- Aloha is an exception, although I was hard-pressed to find another airline with a broad customer base that does not offer the option of online check-in.

Some major international airlines also feature online check-in, including Air Canada, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, although at present, given variations in international law and airport presence, not all international airlines have adopted the system, and those that have cannot offer it on all flights. For example, Lufthansa, SwissAir, Virgin, Qantas, Air France and others have no online check-in as of press time.

Further, the service is not available on all itineraries, and it isn't always perfectly clear which those might be, as they vary by airline and international law. Some flights to Caribbean and European destinations may be ineligible; some airlines (including American and Delta) have simply limited the service to domestic flights to the 50 US states, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Continental limits the service to flights originating in the US or Guam. Clearly policies vary by airline; most airline Web sites maintain a FAQ list clearly outlining policies and restrictions.

For international flights, you may be required to supply a passport number; have this at the ready.

Checking Bags
Most airlines that offer online check-in also offer quick bag drop-off counters. In some cases airlines have installed self-service check-in kiosks that will scan your home-printed boarding pass -- and follow the procedure for checking bags. You can also use curbside check-in.

No Printer? No Problem
Printing out a boarding pass from your home computer at 12:01AM the day of travel is easy enough; printing out a boarding pass from your laptop in your hotel room on the day of your return trip is a different challenge. This doesn't mean you can't check in and, most importantly, select your seats as early as possible. It turns out that you can still enjoy some of the benefits of the early check-in without actually printing out your boarding pass.

In this case, you simply proceed through the online check-in process, including selecting your seats. When your computer prompts you to print the document, you simply click cancel or otherwise move on. When you arrive at the airport, you will have to go to the check-in counter or a self-service kiosk to obtain a "duplicate" boarding pass, but your seat selection or group status should have survived the process.

 Exceptions, Caveats
The timing of your check-in, as well as the nature of your itinerary, could trip you up in some cases. For straightforward itineraries, the process is exceedingly simple. As you introduce some complexity, as above, all kinds of arbitrary, inexplicable, and computer program-driven slippage can intrude.

 Particularly when checking bags, the actual events at the airport vary by airline, airport, even by flight. As the service is relatively new, you can probably expect some variation in how things play out at the airport.

Be a Seat Slayer
Here is the best way to get the best seat when using online check-in:
A) Open two browsers: 1) your airline Web site, and 2) seatguru.com
B) On Browser 1, call up your reservation on the airline Web site, and figure out what type of plane you are flying
C) On Browser 2, navigate to that aircraft on seatguru.com
D) Back on Browser 1, proceed through online check-in to seat selection
E) Consult seatguru.com for the best choice among the available seats, and grab it.

 Remember, you're not the only one jockeying for seats, so make it happen sooner rather than later. Soon enough, it won't be only the savvy and the young and fleet who are throwing virtual elbows for seats; get in the game!  

Remember: Without a travel agent you're on your own.

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