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Columnist
Fee-flying days upon us for foreseeable future
By Gail Todd | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 10/5/2009 4:03 PM

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Did you hear about the smoking gun at Ryanair? In case you've forgotten, Ryanair is the cut-rate European carrier that has led the pack in creative fees for fliers. They've even gone so far as to threaten to charge for using their bathrooms, but I digress. This time, they're actually offering a service. And while it's not exactly a smoking gun, it is smoking. Sort of. You won't be able to light up a Lucky on one of their flights. But you will be able to hang a smokeless cigarette between your lips. These fakes look like the real thing and release nicotine to the user, but have no effect on other passengers. Apparently, the airline feels the pain of the two-pack-a-day smoker, who suffers severe withdrawal when forced to go cold turkey on most flights. So Ryanair has decided to take pity on the seriously addicted smokers and sell these smokeless cigarettes on their flights. And that's where the real burn comes in. A package will set you back about $9.

Ryanair isn't the only airline finding new ways to fill their coffers. In the past, British Airways has allowed passengers to choose their seats in advance for free. You can still do it, but the window of opportunity is only cracked open. If you pick your seat within 24 hours of your flight, there's no charge. But if you book it earlier, depending on the length of the flight and the seat you want, it could cost you close to an extra $100.

And that's not all. While fees for checked luggage isn't new to travelers within the United States, most carriers still allow overseas travelers to check their luggage without paying extra. But that too is changing. Several airlines have started charging for checking a second bag on international flights and some are charging for all checked luggage.

It's all about the economy. According to reports, passengers simply aren't flying. With the airlines' revenues down, they're forced to find new ways, besides ticket prices, to keep from going belly up. So they have become creative with their fees. Change your flight or cancel it and you pay a fee. Want a particular seat? It's yours, but it will cost you. Last year, the airlines began charging for checking a second bag. When that began to fly with passengers, many carriers began to charge for checking your first bag. Now some carriers expect you to pay for your checked luggage online before your flight. If you wait until you arrive at the airport, they tack on another fee.

But while the airlines fight to stay out of the red, many passengers are seeing red.

"The airlines have eliminated meals, pillows, magazines and everything else that used to make flying a pleasant experience," said frequent flier Jean Cowden, who now does most of her business meetings by telephone. "It's not just the economy that's keeping people on the ground. Part of it is the sheer torture of travel. I would rather spend two hours in a dentist chair than two hours on an aircraft."

Jean has a point. When a root canal begins to look more appealing than a flight, we need some real change, not more of this nickel-and-diming stuff.

• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached at gailtodd@aol.com.