How to Tell a Dumb Airline Fee From an Immoral One

Dear airlines: parents and kids should really be able to sit together for free


America's airlines have stumbled into yet another controversy over the extra fees they charge travelers, and this one's a bit of a doozy. As both the Associated Press and Reuters have recently pointed out, many carriers are now essentially forcing parents to pay more in order to sit with their children on flights.

This crime against customer service is now attracting some attention from Capitol Hill, where New York Senator Chuck Schumer has called on the Department of Transportation to step in with new regulations that would require airlines to let kids and parents stick together on planes.

It's not the role of government to stop corporations from being jerks. Having a free market requires tolerance for a bit of callousness. But in this case, the senator might have a point. This is one charge that really does seem unconscionable. And to illustrate why, I've put together a four point test for when an airline fee really goes beyond the pale.

Question 1: Are they charging for a service that actually costs them money?

Airlines aren't like other industries. They're private, but they're also a crucial part of our national infrastructure. A lot of the time, travelers simply have to fly, and so they tend to feel aggrieved by the extra charges that carriers pile on top of their basic ticket price.

But while service fees might be reviled by the public, they can make a lot of economic sense for both the airlines and their customers. Take bag fees. Transporting a hull full of suitcases costs money. It uses up fuel and requires a whole bag handling operation at each airport to make sure their passenger's luggage doesn't get lost. Back in the old days before before airlines started tacking on bag fees, those expenses were bundled into every ticket. But by charging some customers for checking a bag, they're able to charge other fliers less while still earning a profit (this, by the way, is no small concern in such a bankruptcy prone industry). Ultimately, they're making people pay for a service that costs time and money to perform. That's absolutely fair, so long as the costs are transparent when the customer buys their ticket.

In the case of the family fee, that's not what's going on. Here's how parents are getting punished: A number of airlines have begun asking coach passengers to pay extra for "preferred seating." In some cases, fliers are shelling out for more leg room. In others, they're paying for the privilege of claiming a window or aisle seat. Over the past year, American, Delta, and United have all upped the number of preferred seats on their flights with the intent of catering to business travelers who are happy to pay bit extra for more enjoyable trip. And as a result, its become extremely difficult for families to string together three or four seats in a row without paying a hefty fee.  

It clearly doesn't cost an airline anything extra to let a family sit side-by-side. So let's move on to the next issue.

Question 2: Are they charging for a convenience?

Of course, airlines are free to charge for more than basic services. There's a reason that first class seats aren't cheap: Comfort and convenience are worth something, especially when your bread-and-butter customers -- business travelers in the case of the major legacy airlines -- spend so much time in the air.  

Preferred seating obviously falls in this category. And although most decent people probably don't consider it a "convenience" to sit with their children on a flight -- rather, they view it as a basic obligation -- it's still a company's right to charge you for peace of mind. Moreover, if the government bars one fee, chances are the airlines will just think up another. Ultimately, families flying off to their Disney vacation are probably going to pay as much as the market will bear. So based on this issue alone, there's no reason to regulate. 

Step 3: Is there an obvious social cost to the fee?

It's not the government's job to keep companies from offending their customers. But it is the governments job to keep them from hurting them. And the family fee could end up doing just that.

On the one hand, kids travel alone on airplanes all the time. The cabin crew watches them. Nothing tragic happens. But on the other, there's no pressure on parents to send their kids onto an airplane solo. The real issue is whether we want to incentivize parents who, for whatever reason, should probably stay as close as possible to their kids -- maybe they have bad allergies and need to be kept away from the peanut packets -- to sit apart from them. In other words, do we want companies to create a specific financial incentive for parents to take their eyes off their children midair? Probably not.

Step 4: Is the free market likely to take care of the problem?

All of these issues should become moot in a market with enough competition. After all, the normal response to a company that grossly nickles and dimes you is to take your business elsewhere. But in this case, fliers might be short on alternatives. Preferred seating is becoming the rule rather than the exception. It's a growing trend among the major carriers, who thanks to consolidation in the industry aren't competing down on price the way they once did. And discount carriers such as Spirit are charging customers who want any seating assignment at all. While Southwest has embraced completely open seating, where families can go ahead and claim whatever row they like, they're not an option for every trip.

So assuming we don't want the family fee to become an industry norm, it's probably worth it for the government to take a small stand here. It probably won't save anyone much money in the end, since airlines are going to find ways to recoup whatever revenue they lose. But hopefully they'll find a way that's less antithetical to our notions of good child rearing.

Of course, the industry could take care of the issue itself -- by, you know, having a heart.