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Airlines' extra stand-by fee inexplicable

  • Published Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010, at 12:02 a.m.

Remember the days when you could fly "stand-by" to your destination, leaving on an earlier flight than the one you had booked in advance? Nowadays, that simple, sensible act requires that you remember to pay a fee at the very time when, from home, you first make your airline reservation by phone or computer.

I'm not talking about the $50 fee that most airlines actually charge to place you as a stand-by on an earlier flight. That fee is well-known, and heavily discussed in all the literature. I'm talking about the $20 that many airlines now charge for an option to pay $50 for going stand-by on an earlier flight. Can you imagine such a thing?

Here's the scene. It's 11 a.m. on a weekday morning, and my daughter and I have just cleared security at New York-LaGuardia Airport, having arrived unexpectedly early for a 1:30 p.m. flight to Dallas (to appear the next day at a newspaper- sponsored travel show). Realizing that two earlier flights to Dallas have not yet left, and that both flights have empty seats, we decide to speed our departure by asking for stand-by seats on one of those earlier flights (we had no luggage to check).

"Sorry," says the airline gate agent. "To buy a standby seat, you have to have paid an additional $20."

"We're willing to pay that extra $20," we respond.

"It's too late," says the gate agent. "You have to have paid the $20 at the time you bought your tickets."

And thus we are turned down for our failure to have earlier bought an option to later buy such a seat. If we had earlier paid an extra $20 per ticket, we would have been permitted to pay an extra $50 to actually fly on the earlier departure.

Consider the absurdity of this position. By this insistence on the proper sequence for buying a stand-by ticket, an airline fails to fill two empty seats on an earlier flight to Dallas. If it had filled those two empty seats with us, it would have had two empty seats that it could have sold for our original (and later flight), thus earning two times the not-inconsiderable price of a flight to Dallas.

Airline fees — especially the new fees for checking luggage — have earned unprecedented profits for the airlines in the quarter just ended; nearly every major carrier is reporting profits of at least $300 million for that quarter.

But this particular airline could have earned $300 million plus $400, by waiving its incomprehensible $20 charge for the option to later pay $50 for going standby. Only Euclid could explain their logic.

Moving by motorcycle

And now, a word about motorcycles:

On a travel radio show that I present, and despite my strong objections, my co-host played an interview she had earlier recorded with Gary McKechnie, author of the definitive, several-hundred-page tome titled "Great American Motorcycle Tours." I had fruitlessly argued that our audience had no interest in traveling through America by motorcycle.

To my amazement, McKechnie's interview prompted an immediate torrent of telephone calls from listeners. The first was a middle-age woman, mother of several children, who called in to say that all her vacation trips were accomplished by motorcycle. She was followed by a man claiming to be 65 years of age who, every summer, went everywhere in America by motorcycle. And then the clincher: a 75-year-old who claimed that his favorite motorcycle trip was on the mountain- hugging, winding highway along the Oregon coast near Cannon City.

I asked, "Isn't that a bit dangerous?" "Not at all," replied the 75-year-old. "I've been doing it all my life. It's true, of course, that last summer a woman driving ahead of me suddenly stopped and I was caught short; to avoid hitting her, I swerved off the road, fell off, and broke my collarbone. But I will be returning to the highways with my Harley-Davidson next summer."

So there you have it. According to Gary McKechnie, motorcycles are being increasingly used for vacation purposes (apparently by people able to live in the same set of clothes for their entire vacation). And his book on the subject is enjoying heavy sales.

Arthur Frommer is the founder of the Frommer's Travel Guide book series. He co-hosts the radio program "The Travel Show" with his travel correspondent daughter Pauline Frommer. Find more destinations online and read Arthur Frommer's blog at frommers.com.

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