Just as major airlines have stopped imposing new fees for formerly free services, deep discount trendsetters keep pushing the envelope.
The chief executive of Europe's biggest discount airline, Ryanair, floated an idea last week that sounded like a talk show punch line: putting a coin slot on the bathroom doors of each plane. Michael O'Leary suggested in a BBC interview that customers might pay a pound ($1.43) to "spend a penny," the British phrase for using a pay toilet.
O'Leary has a history of making outrageous comments in front of cameras. His spokesman later said the boss "makes a lot of this stuff up as he goes along" and Ryanair has no immediate plans for coin-operated toilets. But he said the idea has been discussed within the airline.
Meanwhile, Ryanair's U.S. soulmate quietly tested fees last year that were shot down by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The agency also fined Spirit Airlines $40,000 in December for not including the charges as part of its advertised fares.
Spirit subsequently worked out an agreement with the agency and on Tuesday began charging a "passenger usage fee" to buy a ticket anywhere except the airline's airport ticket counters.
The charge — $4.90 one way and $9.80 for a round trip — applies to trips booked on Spirit's Web site or by phone through a reservations center. The fee is designed to offset the cost of selling tickets, including maintaining Spirit's Web site, said spokeswoman Misty Pinson.
Customers of Allegiant Air, the largest carrier at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, are familiar with the concept.
Allegiant calls it a "convenience fee" of $13.50 per round-trip ticket for Web bookings, $33.50 for phone reservations. The airline was fined $50,000 last year over failing to show the charge in base fares displayed on its Web site. Allegiant and Spirit both had large portions of their fines waived or applied to expenses in complying with the department's rules.
The two airlines started charging for traditionally free services, such as checking a first bag and assigning seats in advance, before major airlines jumped on the bandwagon last year.
Spirit and Allegiant say the "a la carte" pricing lets customers get rock-bottom fares and choose to pay only for the extras they want. Fair enough. But is it reasonable for people to go to an airport to buy tickets or is the fee just an easy money grab?
Allegiant said about 1,400 passengers a week make the trip. Last month, the airline flew more than 90,000 travelers each week. That means only 1.6 percent bought at an airport ticket counter.
Consider a fee Spirit charged for a week last year before the department stepped in. The "natural occurrence interruption fee" was designed to cover the airline's cost of refunds when severe weather forces cancellation of flights.
Is that an expense your customers should share?
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.