Pass the Hat

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he airlines announced this week that they will begin imposing "poverty fees" of $25 on all passengers. The carriers said the fees would be added to the many other levies that have been introduced in recent weeks to the consternation of travelers and travel agents.

The hardship fees will be shared by the nation's carriers. The airlines in Chapter 11 will get the largest percentage, the almost-Chapter 11 airlines the next largest, and the not-so-close to Chapter 11 carriers the smallest portion. The few airlines still making a profit will not share in the proceeds.

The fees will apply to all passengers except those holding tickets at first class or full-coach fare. Industry observers said this exempt group would represent so few people that it wouldn't be worth measuring the number.

The "down on their luck" fees are the latest example of a fee blitz in recent weeks. The airlines have raised fees for paper tickets, imposed fees for passengers who wish to stand by on certain flights, and increased fees in cases where travel agencies have made ticketing errors.

The wave of fees has caused anger and confusion among the public as well as travel agencies. One survey showed that 60% of travelers and agencies were angry at the fee policies, 20% were confused by them, and the remaining 20% were angry and confused.

The new "pass the hat" fees may not mark the end of the carriers' accelerating policies of devising charges that augment their revenues from fares. Widespread reports predict the airlines soon will set up a three-tiered on-board meal policy with a range of fees.

At the highest level, the airlines are reportedly preparing to provide what one carrier will call "haute cuisine," a French term for edible food. The second level, at a somewhat lower price, is expected to resemble earthbound fast-food menus. Tie-ins with Taco Bell, McDonald's and KFC have been discussed.

The third, and presumably lowest-cost level, is believed likely to involve minimal food portions of mediocre quality. One carrier spokesman said that this lowest level would be familiar to frequent airline passengers.

The new policies also are expected to include changes in the pricing of beverages. Liquor, wine and beer will continue to be offered at surcharges. Soft drinks, now offered on a complimentary basis, will be sold at what one airline called "modest" prices.

The carriers were said to be continuing to deliberate their future water policy, but it was understood that small amounts would be offered to any passenger who appears dehydrated.

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