Air fares normally drop faster than leaves during the fall. But this autumn, a series of ticketing fees promise to keep prices a little higher.
Northwest Airlines announced it would add a surcharge of between $5 and $15 for tickets booked offline. As I write this, several other airlines, including American Airlines, Continental Airlines and US Airways, have matched the fees.
Most travel pundits say these new charges are terrible. I disagree.
Consider how some travelers reacted to the news. When asked if the fees would change the way they purchased their tickets, 61 percent of travelers told Cyber Survey "no." I know, it isn't a scientific survey, and it's skewed towards those who already use the Internet.
But it does raise an interesting question: Will this fee have impact those who travel the most? I don't think so.
Nearly 75 percent of U.S. households have Internet access at home, according to a July 2004 Nielsen//NetRatings survey. The remaining 25 percent of homes without Internet access chiefly comprise the elderly and lower-income populations.
Yes, these new fees which most likely will be instituted by all major airlines will disproportionately prejudice these groups. However, these groups do very little air travel to begin with.
The reality is that these fees will affect those who travel the least.
In fact, the fees have the potential to actually benefit that group.
Think about it. Those who travel infrequently typically require a higher level of service. This new approach will provide that superior service. For a nominal fee, callers will have shorter wait time and more attentive service.
Psychologically, agents will feel obligated to assist paying customer, and not rushed with fewer calls waiting in queue.
Keep in mind that airlines are a business with profit and loss statements, obligations to shareholders and employees to pay. The U.S. consumer has been the beneficiary of an excellent air transportation system. We enjoy low cost, secured air travel throughout the world with relative ease. To continue this boon, consumers should realize what's in our best interest.
In the latest edition of the Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel I talk about the value principle. I describe this as a relationship between your cost of business, and the receipt of preferential treatment and services. To maintain our preferential services, we need to help our travel providers maintain a sustainable cost structure that will permit their on-going existences.
Bear in mind that charging for support services is not limited to the major airlines. Southwest, JetBlue and Independence Air offer cheaper flights on their Web sites. Travel agents and third-party web sites commonly charge booking fees that range from $10 to $25.
This fee is not unlike that which other companies charge for using in-house services.
Call your satellite or cable provider to order pay-per-view, and pay an extra dollar-over the Internet or through your TV, it's free. Order a book from Barnes & Noble's Web site and pay less than you would in its stores. Buy stocks on-line for much less than talking to a broker (a task much more complex than purchasing an air ticket), talk to a bank teller and pay a fee.
Last week, when I called the manufacturer of my computer for support, the overseas outsourced employee took 22 minutes to comprehend my name and computer model. Another 47 minutes later, a technical support person attempted to assist me in broken English.
Although, I've made a habit of pinching pennies, I would have gladly paid $10 for a shorter wait time, and a representative who clearly understood my needs.
As a side note, Northwest has stated that this fee will help them avoid laying off any reservation agents. So it can be argued that these fees will help create and save much-needed employment for U.S. workers.
Although this is unfortunate, companies from all industries are trying to get you away from the human interface, which costs so much to maintain. So if you like to talk with people, it will cost you. If you can figure out how to buy something on your own, you'll save.
Despite our best attempts, we can't create a perfectly fair society.
Joel Widzer

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