American queues up with early-boarding crowd
Carrier is latest to put price tag on perk; trend of a la carte fees is likely to continue, expert says
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Want to board your flight early? On some airlines, you can — if you’re willing to pay a fee for a privilege long reserved for elite business travelers and those flying in first class.
American Airlines recently became the latest carrier to sell the perk, following moves by United Airlines and Southwest Airlines Co.
For fees ranging from $9 to $19 each way, American’s “boarding and flexibility package” puts passengers in the first group to board the plane. It also includes a $75 flight change credit to offset fees charged if fliers need to change their itinerary. And it lets passengers stand by for an earlier flight on departure day, at no charge.
“From customer feedback, we understand that those are services that they are willing to pay for,” said Martha Pantin, a spokeswoman for Fort Worth-based American. “We are seeing customers choose the option more and more each week.”
Soon, American will roll out a stand-alone early boarding option for $10 each way, she said.
Since 2008, many airlines have begun charging for services that were normally included in the price of a ticket, such as checked baggage, booking a reservation through an agent, pillows, blankets and meals. In a tough economy, that’s improved the bottom lines for airlines — but added frustration and confusion for many passengers.
Unlike other secondary airline fees, earlyboarding charges offer passengers a “tangible benefit,” said Stuart Klaskin, a Miami-based airline consultant.
Klaskin said he thinks airlines will continue with a la carte pricing, devising new fees that give passengers a choice in services.
At United Airlines, fliers can select a “premier line” option starting at $19 each way, which grants fliers early boarding and speedy access through
security lines at certain airports. Short lines at the gate or security checkpoints can save passengers a half-hour to an hour at the airport, experts say.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines does not assign seats aboard its aircraft. To guarantee passengers a better shot at securing their preferred seat and greater access to overhead bin space for carry-on luggage, the carrier offers an early-bird check-in option for $10 each way. Fliers get the nextbest boarding position available after the company’s Business Select customers and high-ranking members of its frequent flier program.
Many airlines still extend the courtesy of early boarding to families with small children or passengers needing extra assistance.
Even without paying a fee, knowing airline policies and boarding procedures can save passengers time and improve their chances of hassle-free boarding, said Matt Daimler, founder of Seatguru.com, which tracks airline seating information.
“You can game the system a little bit,” Daimler said, noting the best way to do that is by checking in online as early as possible to select your seat.
Many airlines — including American, Continental, JetBlue, Spirit and Virgin America — board back to front, so if passengers want to board first, they should try reserving a seat toward the back of the plane, Daimler said. Passengers who have a tight connection and need to be one of the first to get off the plane should aim for an aisle seat close to the front of the plane.
“There are a bunch of times when the (early-boarding and seat-selection) fees are of no value or suspect value to the consumer,” Daimler said.
For example, US Airways offers a “choice seat” option, which essentially has passengers paying $5 or more each way for a seat toward the front of the plane. “There is no advantage at all,” Daimler said.
According to US Airways’ website, passengers who pay for a “choice seat” are among the first to get on and among the first to leave on landing, though they have the same legroom as other seats.
Southwest passengers who don’t want to pay the early-bird check-in fee but are trying for a position in the first boarding group should check in online exactly 24 hours before takeoff. That’s when the online checkin becomes immediately available.