The most important item to pack for your next trip? Cash, and plenty of it.
United Airlines and US Airways said Thursday they will charge $15 each way for customers with discount tickets to check a suitcase, matching the controversial move by American Airlines three weeks ago. Experts predicted other traditional carriers will follow suit to offset soaring fuel prices.
US Airways, the third-largest carrier at Tampa International Airport, also will charge coach passengers $2 for non-alcoholic drinks starting Aug. 1, becoming the only major airline not to give away soft drinks, water, juices and coffee. It cut out free pretzels in the back of the plane June 1.
Besides charging new fees, US Airways will cut domestic flying 6 to 8 percent, return 10 aircraft and shed 1,700 jobs. In an e-mail to employees Thursday, CEO Doug Parker wrote that the average fuel cost to fly one passenger round trip this year is $299, compared to $151 in 2007 and $70 in 2000.
"The economic rules of our industry have changed substantially and we simply can't keep running the same plays," he wrote.
American Airlines passengers who buy tickets starting Sunday will be subject to the fee: $15 one-way and $30 round trip. United's charge goes into effect for customers buying tickets beginning Friday for trips on Aug. 18 or later. The fee for US Airways starts for passengers with tickets purchased July 9.
All three airlines will exempt elite-level frequent flyers, international travelers and customers with first- and business-class tickets.
Carriers are raising fares by double-digit percentages but still can't make money on most flights. They increasingly look to new or higher fees — for everything from traveling with pets to changing a nonrefundable ticket.
"There is nothing sacred out there," said Darryl Jenkins, a veteran airline consultant in northern Virginia. "You'll see more and more of this happening."
United started the push for new baggage fees in February with a $25 charge for a second checked suitcase. Most major carriers, including American, followed suit. Until Thursday morning, no big competitors had matched American's first-bag charge. United estimates the new charges will bring in about $275-million a year.
US Airways also will charge for booking tickets through a call center ($25 for a domestic ticket, $35 international), increase fees to redeem Dividend Miles awards tickets and charge more for employees' guests and parents to fly standby. All the new fees combined will generate between $300-million and $400-million annually, the airline said.
Discount airlines have either refused to follow the trend or charge less for services than traditional airlines. Southwest Airlines is now the only U.S. carrier that allows travelers two checked bags free and has ads that tout "Fees Don't Fly with Us,'' listing seven fees it doesn't charge.
"The low-cost, low-service guys now look like the highest service guys," says Robert W. Mann Jr., a former airline executive now working as a consultant in Port Washington. N.Y. "They've turned everything around."
Louis Miller, executive director of Tampa International, says the extra charges get travelers mad and destroy any loyalty to their regular airline. "If they've got to put on a $50 fuel surcharge, just do it," he says.
Actually, they went for a smaller bite. American increased its fuel surcharge $20 round trip early Wednesday. United, Delta, Continental, Northwest and US Airways matched by midday Thursday. It was the 13th price increase by the Big Six traditional carriers so far this year.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.