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In this Sept. 8, 2015 file photo, a United Airlines passenger plane lands at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J. (Mel Evans/AP)
In this Sept. 8, 2015 file photo, a United Airlines passenger plane lands at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J. (Mel Evans/AP)

Outraged by new airline fees? Here's why they're good news Add to ...

United Airlines has announced a new bottom-end fare to compete with discount airlines such as Frontier and Ryanair. Called “basic economy” or BE, these fares will restrict passengers to carry-ons small enough to fit under the seat and no seat selection. You can still, of course, get access to an overhead bin or choose the seat you want – it will simply cost you extra.

The headlines were predictable. “United Airlines Takes A New Step To Make Air Travel More Unpleasant And More Expensive,” said the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. The Independent in the U.K. ran: “United Airlines Launches Basic Economy, Also Known As ‘Misery Class.’ ” Buzzfeed called it “an insult to human dignity.”

But look at them more closely, and you’ll see that ancillary fees are actually close to the opposite of what they appear to be.

People like complaining about airlines only slightly less than they do about politicians. The 1978 Southern Airlines commercial showing first-class passengers being fed grapes by flight attendants while “second-class” economy fliers were treated like prisoners in a gulag hit a chord that still resonates today: Airlines are out to make our lives miserable.

But there’s a problem with that picture.

We have visions of air travel from the 1950s and ’60s as glamorous, passengers lounging on sofas while nattily becapped air hostesses poured Champagne before serving the lobster. Now these things did happen – but the thing is, they still do, and for the exact same people they always did. Air travel used to be ruinously expensive, so expensive that the thought of going on a honeymoon to Paris was out of the question for all but the Madmen set. And family flying vacations? Forget about it. Vancouver or Montreal, maybe, but London? Istanbul? Bangkok? Even game shows only gave away trips to Florida and California.

But take a quick look at skyscanner.ca, and you’ll see that if you want to go to Paris next weekend, there are five return fares under $800. Istanbul? Four choices under $1,000. According to Airlines for America, a U.S. industry association, the real price of fares is on average 40-per-cent cheaper now than it was in 1980. A flight from Montreal to Vancouver on Air Canada cost $132 in 1968. That’s $894 in 2016 dollars. That’s about double what it costs now.

The jet age was not for everybody. Our current era of discount fares, tighter legroom and sitting beside people wearing track suits and packing a lunch is. Yes, ancillary fees are just the latest stage in the evolution that increases airline profits. The U.S. Department of Transportation reported in September that airlines in the United States made $4.6-billion (U.S.) from ancillary fees in the second quarter of 2016 alone, up from $3.1-billion the quarter before. But it is precisely these sorts of things that allow a custodian at an elementary school to take her family on vacation to Thailand.

The big misconception about ancillary fees is that we weren’t paying them before, that somehow those headphones used to be free. Of course they weren’t. They were just bundled into the ticket price. So you paid for them whether you used them or not. “If people aren’t needing to bring a bag with them to travel, the feeling is that they shouldn’t be subsidizing everyone else who is bringing bags,” says Marshall Wilmot, senior vice-president of digital and marketing for WestJet, which has been charging ancillary fees for about a decade, and recently introduced new baggage fees.

The same goes for headphones and food. If you’ve got your own sound system, aren’t hungry or would prefer to bring your own lunch, why would you want to help pay for everyone else’s chicken?

Of course, it’s not just fees that allow for these unprecedentedly accessible fares. Other reasons include increased competition, more efficient jets and algorithms that airlines can now use to fill their seats on flights more adeptly. In short, the airline business has gotten more mature than it was when it catered mostly to the rich, people who didn’t really care whether a ticket cost the equivalent of what an average person made in a month, or two months. It has moved from a luxury service to one that most of us use at least once a year. In 2015, 1.9 million Canadians flew to Mexico, another 1.2 million to Britain and 1.1 million to France.

Nobody likes fees, and few of us are all that fond of corporations. Those are good instincts. But in this particular instance, the money you pay for that extra bag is going a long way to opening up the world to more people than it’s ever been open to before. As corporate money grabs go, it’s a pretty good one.

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Tips for saving the most or making the most of your ancillary fees

Seat selection: Select a premium seat in a row where the window or aisle seat is already taken, The chances of someone ponying up for a middle seat are slim, which means that unless the flight is fully booked, you’ll have an empty seat beside you.

Reduce: Sure, you could get a last-minute invitation to a ball, but probably you won’t need that third pair of shoes or fourth pair of pants. If you need to wheel your bag, you’re taking too much.

Wear your biggest things on the plane: Wear your sweater, your coat, your boots, whatever takes up a lot of room in your carry-on. Then, take them off and stuff them in the overhead bin (unless you’re on United).

Upgrade to premium at check-in: The fees are often very low – as little as $11 for WestJet, for instance, and for that, you get free menu items that would have cost you way more if you’d bought them in the airport and brought them onboard with you.

Bring your own headphones: Get a pair with an easily packable carrying case.

Pack a lunch: You can’t bring liquids on the plane from home, but you can bring a sandwich, or a salad, or a lasagna for that matter. Buy your drink after security, and you’ve got yourself a home-cooked meal at no extra charge.

– Bert Archer

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