Flying the Friendly Skies – National Consumers League

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

I write from a US Airways flight traveling cross-country from Portland to Philadelphia. At the ticket counter this morning, I was chagrined to be reminded that checking my luggage – one piece – would cost me $15. This is the first time I’ve ever paid to check luggage. Getting out to the West Coast for a conference on Southwest Airlines recently, I didn’t have to pay to ship my bag, and I flew from San Diego to Portland on Alaska Air and didn’t have to pay for the bag then either. Despite my recent varied experiences, the US Airways employees at the checkout counter claimed “every airline” is charging for luggage.

Once on the plane, the flight attendant rolled the cart past with drinks and snacks and headphones, announcing that cans of soda pop would cost $2.00, headphones $5.00, and snacks were available for 5 or 10 bucks.

This conversation followed the pricing announcement:

Me: You guys at US Air are the worst on nickel and diming consumers
Flight Attendant: Don’t say ‘you guys.’ Our union fought management on all these charges.
Me: Who is your union?
Flight Attendant: Communication Workers

My ears perked up. The Communications Workers of America holds a seat on the National Consumers League’s Board of Directors. My curiosity piqued, I made my way to the back of the plane a little later and struck up a conversation with two US Airways employees. Turns out that the employees haven’t had a raise in years. In fact, they tell me they’ve taken a series of pay cuts over the past decade.

Yes, of course, we all know the airline industry has been hit very hard by the increase in fuel prices, but those same prices have fallen significantly in the past several months, and the airlines are still collecting the same fuel surcharges on international flights. USA Today reported on October 28 that, “Despite lower jet fuel prices, fuel charges on international tickets are much higher than a year ago.” Domestic fares – 60 percent – also have fuel surcharges averaging around $170 a flight, though Southwest Airlines doesn’t tack on a fuel surcharge, and USA Today says US Airways has reduced its domestic flight surcharges by 11 percent, noting that the prices still aren’t coming down in proportion to jet fuel prices. All of this has prompted U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to write to 11 airline CEOs, asking them to reduce fuel charges as soon as possible. Industry spokespeople defend the increases, arguing that fuel increases were significant and have been dropping only recently.

Meanwhile, US Airways is also pocketing more cash by demanding that consumers pay to check a single bag of luggage, and (talk about cheapskates!) asking me to pay two bucks for a soda! In 2007, US Airways executive William Douglas Parker raked in $5,444,996 in total compensation, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. While large airlines fuel surcharges are estimated to add $10-20 million a year, neither US Airway employees nor consumers seem to reap the added revenues. If the airlines need to charge more for tickets, do it. But don’t call it a fuel surcharge and double the amount when the cost of fuel is down significant. It is business practices like this – and paying the CEO a 5.5 million-dollar-salary while forcing airline employees to take pay cuts – that make consumers and workers cynical about business.