Airline Fees – A Brief History on Paying for Bags, Food and More

It was May of 2008 when American Airlines made its momentous announcement: it would be the first legacy carrier to impose a ‘first checked-bag’ fee, but it should be noted such fees were introduced by smaller, discount carriers Allegiant and Spirit as early as 2007.

Rise of Fees

Early bag fees weren’t terribly expensive; American initially charged $15 each-way for a first checked-bag. Today that fee has grown to $25 each-way, the same charged by all legacy carriers.

What prompted the fees? Airlines said they needed to take this step as part of a series of actions to help with the soaring cost of jet fuel which at one point came close to $150 per barrel. However, as of late Sept. 2016 it had dropped to just below $50 per barrel but the bag fees remain.

In their defense, airlines had some difficult years financially, largely due to the recession/depression of 2008 and its lingering effects. Things have improved since then but as FareCompare’s travel industry analyst Rick Seaney has pointed out, fees are still here because they just make so much money.

Timeline: Airline Fees

A brief history of airline fees. For a quick reference to baggage fees across multiple carriers, take a look at our Worldwide Baggage Fee Chart.

Bag Fees

  • 2008: American Airlines is the first legacy carrier to charge passengers that first checked-bag fee – others quickly follow.
  • 2010: Spirit Airlines breaks a new bag barrier by imposing a carryon bag fee (something Rick Seaney predicted one of the airlines might do, nearly a year before it happened).
  • 2010: Just two carriers remain with free bags: JetBlue (1 bag), Southwest (2 bags) but JetBlue would drop its free bag in 2015. Southwest remains the lone hold-out.

Blankets and Pillow

  • 2008: In August, JetBlue announces it will charge $7 for a pillow and blanket (but you got to keep them).
  • 2009: US Airways begins charging for pillows/blankets; currently, most airlines that still offer this amentity charge a fee. US Airways, meanwhile, would soon disappear into its merger with American Airlines.

Food and Drink

  • 2001: After 9/11, many airlines begin dropping meal service on domestic flights.
  • 2003: Delta starts selling snack boxes on some of its flights.
  • 2005: United begins selling $5 snack boxes in place of meals.
  • 2008: US Airways begins a highly criticized practice: charging for all drinks (including water, coffee, and soda).
  • 2009: US Airways stops charging for all drinks (mainly because no other airline joined in).
  • 2010: Continental announces its last free meal in coach will be served in the fall of this year; Continental itself would soon be gone after its merger with United.

Credit Cards

  • 2005: Hawaiian Airlines starts accepting credit cards on some flights and cash-free flights would become the norm on most of its routes by 2008.
  • 2010: Twelve U.S. carriers have credit card-only policies, which soon becomes the norm.

Note: This is no fee per se involved in this (beyond what a card company might charge) but it is included because it illustrates an in-flight inconvenience.

Peak Travel Day Surcharges

  • 2009: Several airlines began adding surcharges to tickets for peak travel days in September 2009; originally this surcharge was imposed on the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holiday periods.
  • 2010: Surcharges continue throughout the spring and summer of 2010 and beyond (see our historical 2010 Peak Travel Day Surcharge Chart). In recent years, big surcharges have been imposed on international routes and are often referred to as fuel surcharges, but as the price of oil dropped, they were simply called  ‘surcharges’.

Note: Again, this is not a fee – more like a veiled airfare price hike – but it is included because it represents another charge to passengers.

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Updated: September 15, 2016