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Originally published June 17, 2010 at 10:10 AM | Page modified June 18, 2010 at 7:24 AM

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With business picking up, airlines move to increase fees

American Airlines says it will begin selling customers "Boarding and Flexibility" packages that will allow regular domestic coach passengers to board planes ahead of others, fly standby and pay half the normal fee for changing a flight itinerary.

Seattle Times travel writer

Now that the airline business has begun to pick up again, U.S. carriers have started increasing fees and adding to a menu of charges for services they once provided free.

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air, which together handle 50 percent of Sea-Tac's passenger traffic, Wednesday raised their first-checked-bag fee from $15 to $20.

Now American Airlines is selling customers "Boarding and Flexibility" packages that allow regular domestic coach passengers to board planes ahead of others, fly standby and pay half the normal $150 fee for changing a flight itinerary.

Introductory prices under American's "Your Choice" program range from $9-$19 each way, depending on the route. The cost is $38, for example, for round-trip flights between Seattle and New York or Dallas. American also flies between Seattle and Chicago and St. Louis.

Here's what the new package includes:

• A place in Group 1 of general boarding, which American says "allows you to be one of the first groups to board the plane ... immediately following Priority AAccess customers."

The main advantage presumably is first crack at overhead bin space, which has grown tighter as more people carry on bags to avoid checked bag fees.

• A $75 discount on flight-change fees. American typically charges $150 for this service on most types of tickets. Some airlines, such as Southwest, which also has no bag fees, charge no change fees.

• The option to go on standby for an earlier flight on your day of departure. American earlier eliminated standby for all except its premium customers. It sells a "Confirmed Flight Change" option for $50 that entitles a passenger to get a confirmed seat and boarding pass for another flight on the same day of travel.

In addition, the airline said that later this summer it will offer a stand-alone option for passengers to join the Group 1 priority boarding line for an extra $10 each way. The option will be available for purchase up to one hour before a flight's scheduled departure.

After cutting fares and capacity when business fliers dwindled in the recession, American and other big carriers are flying fuller planes and charging more for tickets. Business travel, a major source of revenue, is recovering and most airlines are expecting big boosts in passenger revenue this summer.

"There really is no 'free' lunch in any business," said Jay Sorensen, vice president of Milwaukee-based IdeaWorks, a company that advises airlines on ways to generate new revenue. "This allocates the benefit to those willing to vote with their dollars."

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American reported $585 million in ancillary revenue — revenue from things such as checked-bag fees and onboard food sales — during the first quarter of this year, up 4.8 percent from the same period last year.

American could decide to add more options to the new "Choice" packages later, or sell a similar package for international flights, said spokesman Tim Smith.

"There's a certain amount of seeing what people's reaction is, what kind of things they value."

Carol Pucci: cpucci@seattletimes.com

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