Strap in, but keep your wallet out

After checking in for her American Airlines flight, Mary Anne Donohue pointed at her watch and said, “Imagine if the company that sold me this watch charged me for every hour it ticks.”

The 56-year-old San Rafael resident then held up her boarding pass.

“That’s how I feel when I buy a plane ticket,” she said.

Donohue is one of many travelers frustrated by the mounting number of fees and charges U.S. airlines have recently placed on amenities that were once free for fliers. New fees on once-complimentary perks, such as food, seat requests, headphones and transporting pets, are part of an effort by many airlines to offset soaring fuel costs in a declining industry.

Four of the five most popular airlines at San Francisco International Airport, including United and Continental, raised fares in March by as much as $50. Several airlines, such as US Airways, began charging $25 for a second checked bag. And American Airlines — the nation’s largest carrier — announced Wednesday that it will start charging $15 for domestic fliers’ first checked bag. Carry-on bags, however, will continue to be free.

The new charge was the latest on a list of new costs travelers have endured in recent years — particularly on domestic flights. Airline analysts say it’s possible other carriers will also begin charging passengers for checking the first bag.

“They’ll charge every possible fee. … I guess they could start charging humans by the pound,” FareCompare.com CEO Rick Seaney said.

In the last decade, many airlines have tacked on extra fees for booking via phone or for in-flight movies; some are now charging more than $5 for requesting an aisle or window seat, Seaney said, though nonalcoholic drinks continue to be free. The extra fees are on top of higher costs for airfare, sales tax and even a TSA security fee, which went into effect after the Sept. 11 attacks, Seaney said.

While the additional fees might help offset jet-fuel costs, they haven’t done much to the help the industry’s bottom line, Seaney said. JP Morgan analysts estimate U.S. airlines will lose $7 billion this year, pointing the finger at the $130-a-barrel price for oil. And with the price of oil rising with no apparent peak in sight, charging for luggage won’t save from those losses.

But David A. Castelveter with the Air Transport Association of America, a trade organization representing major U.S. airlines, said the rising costs are not about returning to profitability.

“They’re doing everything they can do to survive,” Castelveter said.

He said the expected fuel bill for U.S. passenger and cargo airlines for 2008 is going to be upward of $60 billion dollars. The fuel bill last year was $18 billion less.

maldax@sfexaminer.com

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