Gouged While Flying

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

Herewith an explanation of what might appear to the casual traveler to be nothing more than the kind of corporate greed to which we have become accustomed. It is an explanation for the reason for changes that airlines have introduced to the traveler that significantly increase the cost of travel while not affecting the price of tickets. This apparent anomaly has a simple explanation that is often overlooked. Before offering the explanation, however, it is helpful to look at some examples of increases in the cost of travel. For purposes of this piece we focus on the Friendly Skies of United Airlines (UAL) although the changes described and the motives as well, are equally applicable to those less friendly airlines.

Among the first of recent changes was one affecting passengers’ suitcases that was announced in about 2008. For many years the suitcase accompanied the traveler as a matter of right without additional cost. Today the charge for the first suitcase at UAL is $25 and for the second $35. In order to lessen the resentment many travelers felt at this additional charge, UAL came up with a solution. It sent customers an e-mail announcing that “United is the first airline to save you time and money with this simple and convenient service.” The simple and convenient service required the passenger to pack a suitcase a couple days before travelling and then call FedEx to pick up the suitcase and ship it to the traveler’s destination. Travelers who took advantage of this service did not have to pay UAL $25 for checking the suitcase. Instead they paid FedEx somewhere between $149 and $250, depending on where the suitcase was going, a figure that according to UAL’s website, has now dropped to $99 per bag.

Ever looking for new ways to improve the convenience for suitcases’ travels, UAL has added a new luggage service for those who don’t want to use FedEx. According to its website the traveler can pay the airline $349 for the one year privilege of checking two bags each time the traveler flies. That is much cheaper for the frequent flyer than paying FedEx and more convenient than having to pack a couple days before travelling. Having taken care of suitcases, UAL came up with another new idea. This improvement involved travelers’ comfort.

In the cheap seat section of the airplane it installed a few rows of seats where what would have been considered intolerable leg space 20 years ago became highly desirable. At first the seats were given at no cost to those who had attained privileged status with the airline. Then it occurred to someone that the company could make them available to others by charging an additional amount. To make the offer attractive, those seats were advertised for sale with pictures of a flyer with legs stretching into infinity which, of course, is no reflection on how much space is actually between those seats. Travelers flying from Chicago to Madison pay $9 for the better seats. Those flying from Denver to Seattle pay $49.

Now, UAL has come up with the newest, most exciting innovation yet. For years it has encouraged people to become members of their Mileage Plus Program because of all the good things that accompany the accumulation of great numbers of miles. One of the best was using the miles to remove oneself from the cheap seats into the business class seats. The number of miles required to accomplish this feat depended on the distance travelled and required the purchase of a more expensive coach class ticket than the least expensive one being advertised. Realizing that travelers didn’t like to have to buy a more expensive ticket in order to upgrade, UAL changed the rules. Anyone wishing to upgrade can now buy the cheapest ticket being advertised and use miles to upgrade. There is, however, a catch. It had the catchy name of “co-pay.” With the new program, a member of Mileage Plus who wants to use miles to upgrade from coach to business class when going to Europe, buys the cheapest coach ticket, takes miles from the mileage plus account and then participates with UAL in the “co-pay.” The co-pay for those travelling to Europe is $900 for round trip travel in addition to the price of the ticket. Those travelling to the Far East pay $1,000. And now, the reason for these additional charges that have helped the airlines keep ticket prices low. The answer can be found in taxes.

A 7.5% excise tax is imposed on passenger fares. The excise tax is not imposed on the assorted fees charged passengers described above including, presumably, the co-pays. No one likes paying taxes. UAL and other airlines have figured out ways of avoiding them. No one likes being gouged. Airline passengers have not yet figured out how to avoid that.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 01, 2015
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action
Michael Welton
The Conversable World: Finding a Compass in Post-9/11 Times