Airlines are busy thinking about how to earn more profit in 2023, and from the looks of it, they plan to do it the old-fashioned way: by charging fees. The extras range from luggage surcharges to creative change fees.
The average airline fees rose to an all-time high of $128 per ticket last year, according to research by travel management company Navan (formerly TripActions). “They’re certainly the highest I’ve seen them,” Navan’s Chief Commercial Officer Danny Finkel said.
Airline fees continue on their upward trajectory, and most experts predict they will soar this year. (I have strategies on how to fight fees and other nuisance surcharges in my ultimate guide on booking airline tickets.)
Flyers need to be weight watchers
One thing is certain: Luggage fees will be big in 2023. Airlines collected a record $20.9 billion last year in baggage fees, according to a report from IdeaWorks, a company that tracks airline fees. They’re paying particular attention to carry-on fees. For example, Aer Lingus has a “saver” fare in Europe that includes a checked bag but excludes a large carry-on. And AirAsia will allow you to double the size of your 15-pound carry-on — for a price.
“It’s just a matter of time before we start seeing wider adoption of dynamic pricing on fees,” says John Breyault, a vice president at the National Consumers League, a nonprofit organization.
Beware of airline cancellation fees
Here’s a new kind of fee Ariana Fiorello-Omotosho saw this summer, and it could become big. When an airline cancels a flight, it owes you either a full refund or a flight of its choosing. Most passengers just want to get to their destination as planned, so they accept the new flight.
But what if the airline can’t or won’t put them on the next flight? What if they tell them they can’t send them to their destination for a few more days, or weeks — unless they pay extra?
There’s an opportunity to upsell passengers on an earlier flight. Fiorello-Omotosho, a travel coach from Medford, Mass., says she’s seen airlines punish passengers traveling on the cheapest tickets and who declined to buy a confirmed seat assignment. These travelers get the lowest priority when the airline has a cancellation. They often get stuck with lengthy waits at the airport just to board their rescheduled flight.
“This is a potential for any airline, and I believe it is going to be a growing concern,” she says.
Airlines profiting from their own cancellations? What’ll they think of next?
A change for change fees
Here’s something else to look for as you start planning next year’s trips: Change fees may make a comeback.
But wait! Didn’t U.S. airlines agree to drop their change fees during the early days of the pandemic, as they were begging the federal government for a bailout? Yep, they did. But look at all the money they left on the table ($2.8 billion in 2019). Is there any way to keep their promise and bring back ticket change fees?
Of course there is. The easy way is to sell more tickets with change fees. Airlines exempted their cheapest fares from the “no change fees” promise. So all they really need to do is sell more of these cut-rate tickets and fewer regular economy class seats.
The other strategy is to add a change fee but call it something else. I don’t dare speculate on how they would justify these new fees. I don’t want to give the airline industry any ideas. But let’s just say the airline industry misses its change fees, and it wants them back.
Then again, maybe the airline industry will do none of these things next year and take the easy runway. Sell more frequent flier miles to credit card companies and customers and then adjust their redemption levels to make them a little harder to use.
How to escape airline fees in 2023
Which airlines charge the most fees? IdeaWorks names them (they’re called ancillary revenue “champs”). They include Allegiant, EasyJet and Ryanair. But airlines like Frontier and Spirit also have well-earned reputations for adding fees. And JetBlue’s planned merger with Spirit — unless the Department of Justice gets its way — will also put it in the game. You can avoid the fees by flying without luggage and avoiding all perks, and you might even save some money. But sooner or later, the fees will find you.
Avoid the fee-prone fares
Don’t let the “basic economy” and “saver economy” discount fares fool you, says Daniel Green, co-founder of the travel insurance site Faye. The problem: They’re far more restrictive when it comes to luggage and ticket changes. “Airlines act like these are a discount,” he says, “In reality, if you purchase the saver fares plus one or two add-ons, you’ll end up paying more than you will for a regular economy ticket, which likely already includes those add-ons.”
“The biggest mistake I see travelers make is not taking baggage weight limits seriously,” says Larry Snider, vice president of operations at Casago Vacation Rentals. “It’s worth the effort to pack a little smarter — and lighter — to save on these fees.” Fun fact: Airlines incentivize their ticket agents to collect as much revenue from passengers before they board. If they think your bag might be overweight, they’re gonna getcha.
Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and the Elliott Report, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can reach him here or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.