Bad news: Fliers are falling for those airline add-on fees—big time. Airlines are netting as much as $50 on average off of each passenger, on things like bag fees, seat selection, meals, and more, according to a new study of airline revenue by IdeaWorks, a marketing consultancy, which looked at 73 top airlines around the world. Despite the bad rap that low-cost carriers like Spirit, Wow Air, and Norwegian get, they aren’t the only ones making anywhere from 16 to more than 40 percent of their revenue off of ancillary fees. United makes $38.83 on average per passenger, Alaska Airlines makes $30.42 per passenger, and Delta makes $28.92 per passenger, putting them in the top 15 airlines profiting, big time, off of fees.
If $28 doesn’t sound too crazy—on Delta, your first checked bag puts you at $25 out the gate—think of the numbers in aggregate: United made the most, with $5,749,000,000 of revenue in extra fees last year. Yes, that’s billions, which includes all à la carte options (like basic economy seat selection, or in-flight meals), hotel and car rentals booked through the airline, and more—basically everything that isn’t your plane ticket.
In part, these fees are a byproduct of a fluctuating airfare market: Though prices may change based on new route competition or the time of year, airlines can count on the prices of the fees staying stable. After all, “it’s hard to skip the extras,” as the report notes. (Good luck flying across the Atlantic without so much as a bag of pretzels.) And when you pay for those extras, you’ll likely end up paying almost the same amount as you would with a bundled, traditional fare. The company compared a New York to London route over the same October travel dates and found that on average, you’ll save at most $90 (on United) by paying for seat selection, baggage, and meals à la carte. On Virgin Atlantic, you wouldn’t save a dime.
If you want to game the system and save money as a passenger, read up on what you do and don’t get out of basic economy ahead of booking. In fact, no matter what seat class you fly, be sure to do your math. Case in point? Low-cost carriers Spirit, Wow Air, Frontier, and Allegiant are all in the top in five airlines for per-passenger fees. Can’t say we’re surprised.
This article was originally published in 2017. It has been updated with new information.
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