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Originally published April 30, 2013 at 11:35 AM | Page modified May 2, 2013 at 9:09 AM

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Airlines back to their dismal normal — with more fees coming

Surcharges for better seats on a plane are soaring — and coming up is a $21.99 upgraded meal.

The New York Times

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You couldn’t hear the American Airlines gate agent mumbling into his tinny microphone about yet another delay at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport because he was being drowned out by the voice of the woman who makes those annoying security announcements.

That didn’t matter, though, since my plane was not going anywhere for another couple of hours early Friday evening, as the air travel system lurched through the final days of systemwide delays caused by the furloughs of air traffic controllers.

Late that night, as we finally approached New York, the captain made a cheery announcement, which I hoped was also accurate. “Well, the worst part of the day is behind us,” he said.

And Sunday, flying back home to Tucson, Ariz., from New York with a connection in Dallas, all delay-free, it appeared that the latest air travel crisis had abated.

So welcome back to the old normal in air travel — to long flights without food in coach, to overhead storage bins crammed like the roof of a Bangladesh bus, to cramped planes filled to capacity on every flight, to a general annoyance that is perhaps illustrated by my deep resentment of that large man in the row ahead of me with a head the size of a pumpkin who cranked his seat all the way back, reducing my personal space to about 9 inches.

One big aspect of the old normal is airline fees, of course. Airlines cannot get enough of them. Last week, for example, US Airways, currently navigating a merger with American Airlines that will ultimately leave USAir in charge, announced that it would follow the lead of United Airlines and raise the penalty fees for changing most coach tickets to $200 from $150, and to $300 from $250 for some international flights.

It was not apparent Monday whether Delta Air Lines and American Airlines were planning to match these increases. But change penalties are big revenue producers for airlines, which collected $2.4 billion in such penalties in 2011. The total rose about 7 percent for the first three quarters of last year, the most recent period for which data has been reported by the Transportation Department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The airlines justify the rising fees — for changing flights, checking bags and a host of other services like better (or less awful) seats in the coach cabins — as a necessity if they are to remain profitable in the face of intractable passenger demand for the lowest competitive fares. “We can continue to offer low fares by segmenting customer demand,” Scott Kirby, the president of USAir, said at the airline’s annual media day.

Increasingly sophisticated pricing is behind that segmenting of demand. Here is an example from my flight from Tucson to New York over the weekend on American Airlines. The round-trip coach fare, booked by a corporate travel office for last-minute travel, was $916.66 When I checked in, my assigned seat on both legs was 29E — a middle seat, one of the worst possible in the rear of an MD-80 aircraft. All the aisle or window seats in the dreaded back of the plane were shown as unavailable.

Ah, but I did have options. For an extra $36, I was able to choose a less-awful aisle seat. On the return trip, the surcharges for better aisle coach seats ranged up to $106. Yet on both trips, I saw that a few aisle seats in the back of the plane (which I would have opted for without paying a charge) were actually unoccupied. A spokesman for American said those seats are often kept open for traveling employees and families that want to sit together, and not to encourage others to pay extra for better seats.

These are the realities as the airline industry consolidates globally. With ever more numerous layers of fees, airlines have essentially figured out a way to raise fares from business travelers, who are far more likely to choose to pay a little extra for a little less discomfort. Corporate travel managers are increasingly inclined to approve such extra charges on expense accounts, Derek Kerr, the US Airways chief financial officer, told me last week.

As it merges with American (the merger is expected to formally close this fall), US Airways’ management, which will run what it calls the “new American,” will be operating a giant global airline with more than 1,500 aircraft making 6,700 daily flights to 336 destinations in 56 countries. Under the American AAdvantage brand, its combined frequent-flier program will have more than 100 million members.

Given the enormous complexity of the merger, USAir officials say they are not contemplating introducing a lot of basic changes. But fees for new levels of service will certainly become more common.

At its corporate event in Scottsdale, Ariz., last week, US Airways had a display of one of its new products, called DineFresh. It’s a premium boxed meal with a small bottle of wine, available as an upgrade from the free coach meals on international flights to Europe, the Middle East and South America. The meals looked enticing enough to pay extra for, from a chilled charcuterie with salad and cheesecake to a vegetarian orzo with Portobello mushrooms. But the price was bracing.

I caught Doug Parker, the chief executive of USAir, as he passed by. “Doug,” I said, “great-looking choices — but $21.99 for a meal in coach?”

“Heh-heh,” Parker said.

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