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

Austin American-Statesman - - BUSINESS & PERSONAL FINANCE - By Ja­clyn Gio­vis

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.

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