$15 for a boarding pass? It could happen.

A long-fought battle between Canada’s airlines, airports, air navigation system and the federal government might finally be about to come to an end.

Its roots lie in the ’90s, when the federal government began privatizing Canada’s international airports and the air traffic control system, replacing a taxpayer-funded air travel system with a user-pay model.

In many ways, it was a progressive move. No longer would low-income earners who rarely used the system have to subsidize frequent Business Class travelers. Airports and air traffic control, meanwhile, were free to raise funds without having to be as sensitive to political considerations, as was the case in the days when a small regional airport’s careless use of the public’s money could turn into a big headache for the federal Minister of Transport.

But it was also controversial. Somebody would have to collect the money from travelers. Either it would have to be the airports, by charging admission to the departure area, or the airlines, by adding extra fees to the cost of each ticket.

Eventually, the airlines were given the job of collecting the funds and passing them along to others.

This, in turn, raised the ire of passengers, who resented the fact that the sweet $758 fare to Paris escalated to $1,281 after all the taxes, fees and surcharges were added on.

Fare, taxes and surcharges for a Delta Airlines Winnipeg-Paris round trip in April, 2012

After years of complaints, the federal government recently announced that new rules are on the way requiring airlines to show the combined fare, plus taxes and surcharges.

But here’s what will be missing: all the little extras that the airlines have started charging for.

In fact, by putting pressure on the airlines to show the lowest possible fare in their advertisements in order to stay competitive with cross-border rivals, Ottawa might be perversely encouraging airlines to be more ruthless in extracting dollars from other sources.

An extreme example of this is Ryanair, which has become one of the world’s most profitable airlines by charging extremely low up-front fares, such as London-Rome for £16 ($26 Cdn.), and then hitting passengers up for more money later on.*

Some examples from the Skytrax airline review site include:

  • One passenger returning to the U.K. from Gran Canaria was asked by a gate agent to put his bag into a metal basket in order to check its size. When it didn’t fit, he was told that he would have to pay a 40 Euro ($54 Cdn.) penalty.
  • Another British passenger en route to Spain reported spending £48 ($77 Cdn.) so that his family could have “priority boarding” privileges — only to find that other passengers who hadn’t purchased the priority boarding option were allowed to barge past them.
  • Multiple passengers noted that, if you don’t print off your boarding pass on your home or office printer, Ryanair will gladly print one for you — for   £40 ($64 Cdn.) per boarding pass.

Baggage allowance costs extra on Ryanair — ranging from £15 to £130 ($24 to $209 Cdn.) for the first bag, depending on where and when you fly and whether the fee is collected online or at the airport.

The excess baggage charges kick in, however, at just 15 kilograms (33 lbs.) Exceed this limit, and you’ll be charged an extra £20 per kilogram ($32).

Under Europe’s relatively tough consumer protection laws, it’s all perfectly legal.

Even U.S. and Australian airlines have taken to charging for extras that are still available at no extra charge on Canadian carriers in order to keep their up-front fares as low as possible.

Denver-based Frontier Airlines charges most passengers aside from frequent fliers $6 to activate the in-flight entertainment system, while Australia’s Jetstar charges $3 for a soft drink, another $3 for a chocolate bar, and $10-$15 to use their in-flight entertainment system.

Could Air Canada and WestJet go down that route?

It’s conceivable, if lowering or eliminating the free baggage allowance, free beverages, and free entertainment allowed them to show the consumer a lower up-front cost. After all, the new regulations would presumably only apply to fuel surcharges and fees that the airlines collect on others’ behalf — not to amenities and conveniences.

In fact, it might make sense for the airlines to do that. If someone buys a $500 suit at The Bay, will they throw in a cup of coffee at The Paddlewheel at no extra charge?

Not a chance. So, why should the airlines do so?

Ottawa needs a victory that will allow it to score points with consumers. Airlines need a low up-front fare to “hook” passengers — but still take in enough money to pay their bills. Eventually, something will have to give.

* – For more on Ryanair’s extra charges, see the following courtesy of the BBC’s Panorama documentary program.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

2 Responses to $15 for a boarding pass? It could happen.

  1. bwalzer says:

    Air traffic control is at an awkward crossroads right at the moment. The technological trend is moving away from centralized control of aircraft mostly due to things like satellite navigation. This creates a problem with organizations like NAV Canada. They do not have any incentive to modernize the system as this would tend to put them out of business. Eventually this will happen anyway…

    The government should be aware that they could have a potentially expensive problem in the future. Just dumping the activity should not absolve them of responsibility.

  2. W. Krawec says:

    Interesting post. I would say that things are certainly moving in the direction of Ryanair’s current business model and have been for quite some time. Many (most?) U.S. carriers now charge for any checked luggage, and economy-class meals on domestic flights are a distant memory. It isn’t hard to imagine the same thing happening to drinks and snacks. It’s practically a small miracle that AC and WestJet began offering in-flight entertainment to economy passengers, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they started charging for that at some point. However, there isn’t a lot of fat to cut in airline service (at least for economy passengers) so I would think that the airlines could only go so far. Doing something absurd like proposing a fee to use washrooms as Ryanair once did would probably risk incurring the wrath of the public and politicians.

    Speaking of Ryanair, they go a bit too far with their cost-cutting ways and I’m genuinely surprised that they have grown into what they are considering the existence of more palatable alternatives. Ryanair’s annoying and opportunistic “gotcha” tactics like charging exorbitant fees if you forget to print out your boarding passes is off-putting, and because of that I’ve opted for alternatives like Easyjet and Wizz Air.

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