Flying used to be a relatively simple process, at least financially. Once upon a time, you would pay for your ticket and never have to open up your wallet again until you reached your destination. However, in recent years, airlines have begun charging fees for products and services associated with flying. It started with charging for checked bags, which was quickly followed by fees for things like snacks, drinks, pillows, and blankets.
According to IdeaWorks, a consultancy that tracks airline fees, the world's top fifty airlines collected more than $22.6 billion in ancillary revenue last year. Australian carrier Qantas, for example, collected more than $50 in fees per passenger in 2011.
"Air carriers were hit especially hard over the last few years as fuel prices soared, and they have tried to find ways to attract fliers with low advertised fares – but offset their costs with add-on fees," said attorney Martin Sweet of the legal information website THELAW.TV.
One of the ways airlines have chosen to make some extra money is by charging passengers for what they call "premium" seats. They will charge you $15 or $20 to sit in a particular seat with a good location or a bit more leg room. This can become costly for a family traveling together, and when the airplane is full – as more and more planes are -- due to the airlines' desire to fly smaller, fuller planes to get the biggest bang for their fuel cost buck, it can be a be a headache for families with small children.
Many families with children are being forced to pay as much as $80 in fees to sit together. When you book your flight online, most airlines will show you the plane's seating chart and allow you to choose your seats. Often, it's difficult to find seats together unless you're willing to pay for premium seating.
John and Amanda Parish booked their trip to Disney World in Orlando seven months in advance so they could sit with five-year-old Megan, but then in July, they were told that American Airlines changed the plane for their return trip and the family would have to be separated. Parish said he had no other recourse but to pay an additional $60 so his daughter wouldn't have to sit rows away and on the other side of the cabin.
"Separating children from their parents on an airplane can be a huge cause of anxiety, and create issues for passengers seated around any of the separated family members," says Sweet. "The add-on fee situation could be ripe for abuse, particularly if the airline is dishonest about the availability of particular seats."
Airline officials say these situations can be taken care of at the gate and that flight attendants will work with surrounding passengers to switch seats, allowing children to sit with their parents. But those other passengers are not always amenable to switching seats, especially if it involves switching to a middle seat.
In July, a Washington watchdog group asked federal regulators to step in and forbid U.S. airlines from separating children from their parents on airplanes. That same month, lawmakers introduced a bill called the "Families Flying Together Act of 2012" that would make it illegal for airlines to split families up. But even the author of that bill, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), admits it could bring up thorny issues such as to how exactly to define a family.
"I'm not sure there is a solution to this particular problem," says Sweet. "The airlines are trying to turn a profit and if they were to eliminate some of these fees they would probably significantly raise their airfares to compensate."
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), recently called on U.S. carriers to voluntarily reconsider their pricing scheme, particularly for families traveling with children. Besides the cost implication for travelers, Schumer raised concerns with the U.S. Department of Transportation over the safety implications of children being forced to sit separately from their parents because of onerous fees. Schumer also questioned whether airlines would assume liability for the safety of a child who wasn't seated next to their parent.
The Parish family eventually got to sit together free of charge, only after American Airlines received numerous media inquiries about their story.
In this era of high fuel costs, it looks like airline fees are here to stay. If you can pack lightly enough to fit everything into a carry on, take some snacks with you on the plane and avoid flying with young children, you just might be able to afford your trip.