When the travel landscape is your canvas, you're always going to have the most fun painting the airlines by the numbers. In fact, the recent efforts of airlines all over the globe to improve their numbers in light of sharply increasing fuel costs makes for some really interesting case studies.
Since truth really is stranger than fiction, let's just look at what is actually being done as opposed to what might come down the runway in the future, when some of these guys are really strapped for cash.
Airline fees are not, of course, only for airline buffs. The degree of public push-back worldwide is being closely monitored by those in the lodging and cruise communities.
If you happen to think that all of these annoying new fees are insignificant, consider that they are estimated to have produced just over $30 billion in additional revenue for the world's airlines in 2011.
We are all familiar with the additional baggage fees and their various permutations. But what is really interesting about the new fees is the fact that they have actually changed human behavior. Twenty-five percent of all airline passengers now check absolutely nothing. We have learned to dress with less. We strive to arrive with as little as possible.
When it comes to ancillary fees, we must first look at the Irish airline Ryanair, the poster boy for airline add-ons and the carrier that has redefined "no frills." If one actually reads their press releases and the public utterances of their executives, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that low-cost ceiling handles will accommodate passengers willing to stand instead of sit en route to Barcelona.
Of course, it's easy to target Ryanair. But it is a fact that some of the outrageous additional charges initially proposed by Europe's largest budget carrier have actually come to pass. Give the company's executives credit: They are always one step ahead of the curve when it comes to dehumanizing clientele, and I fear that other airlines are watching their success with some degree of envy. They have actually trained 70% of their short-haul passengers to forgo any checked baggage at all on vacation. One can only hope that a deodorant stick makes it into the carry-on.
Of course, on Ryanair you already pay for anything you check, and worse, you pay extra if you actually have the gall to check in via computer. Oh, and you pay to use a credit card. So if you want to pay the lowest actual fare, you show up at the airport with no bags, no confirmation and no credit card.
Ryanair execs have also determined that they can charge more to check a bag during the busy summer season in Europe. So you will pay 20 British pounds instead of the normal 15 this summer. Look for seasonal extra charges to be coming our way.
That would have been the story, and I could have moved on to talk about some of the other airlines, except for that little article in Ryanair, the carrier's eponymous in-flight magazine.
In its latest issue, Ryanair's Stephen McNamara reopened a large can of peas when he reintroduced the notion of toilet charges aboard the aircraft. Let's give him credit for being direct about the need to change further aspects of the flying public's behavior.
"By charging for the toilets, we are hoping to change passengers' behavior so they use the bathroom before or after the flight," he explained. Fair enough. So how would this actually be implemented?
Ryanair would remove two of the three restrooms aboard its planes and charge one euro to use the single remaining facility. This would free up space for six additional seats aboard each aircraft. Do the math.
In case you have never flown Ryanair, let me sit you down on one of their blue plastic seats and explain what happens just after takeoff. Imagine flying in one of the world's least comfortable seats while the droning voice over the intercom makes you feel like your brain has been invaded by a home-shopping channel running a terminally bored pitchman.
They first pitch the food, which could include pastries, coffee, cappuccino, cold drinks, perhaps wraps. All can be had for a price estimated to be north of 350% of what one would pay for similar victuals on the ground. Once all the loose change is collected for that, the hard selling begins with pitches for the latest magazines, colognes, candies and a slew of handy computer equipment (as though the poor souls seated on the aircraft could actually fit a laptop anywhere in their space).
This is usually followed by a pitch to support Ryanair's official charity.
Give these guys credit for one more innovation. Ryanair has actually figured out how to make money from cigarettes. They refer to themselves as "the smoker's favorite airline" because you can puff away on a fake, smokeless cigarette for the equivalent of about $8. The addict will always pay more for his pleasure.
Again, the story should have ended here. We get the point. You can make money by denying the traveler absolutely anything but the actual transportation while calling anything else, including the most basic of human services or needs, an ancillary "add-on."
But lest you feel that Ryanair is the leader in what it does, I must point out that it does not limit its peculiar sensibilities to its passengers. It has now asked its flight attendants to make a sincere effort to shed pounds in an effort to reduce total aircraft weight at takeoff. In-flight staff are being promised that if they succeed, they could be eligible to appear in the airline's annual swimsuit calendar.
This year's Girls of Ryanair calendar sold for 10 pounds. But as least (the airline says) this fee went to charity. Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.