It’s not your imagination: Airlines are piling on more fees and extra charges, driving up the cost of air travel. Across the industry, revenue from what’s known as ancillary sales—fees for selecting seats, checking bags, and buying food, to name a few—will reach a record $117.9 billion in 2023. That’s a 7.7% increase from pre-pandemic records, according to a recent study from airline consultancy firm IdeaWorks and B2B car rental company CarTrawler.
As plane ticket prices have become more competitive, airlines have turned to ancillary sales to boost profits. And where these fees were once largely confined to low-cost carriers, practices like charging customers for seats and checked luggage are now widespread across all airlines. As the IdeaWorks study points out, carriers like British Airways, Air France, and KLM are now even charging fliers to secure ‘better’ business class seats.
It’s not simply the fees that are raising hackles. It’s also how they’re sold online. Due to the time sensitive nature of airfares, as well as the dozens of upgrades and extras offered as you click through the sales process, airline websites can be ripe environments for what’s known as dark patterns. Coined in 2010 by Harry Brignull, a UX designer with a doctorate in cognitive science, dark patterns are design strategies used to trick consumers during their purchasing experience and guide them to decisions they would not make otherwise. Airlines employ a range of tactics on their websites, ranging from manipulation to deception, Bringull says. “People need to be aware of their tactics if we want to see changes in the way they operate.”
Awareness is on the rise. In 2022, The U.S. Department of Transportation received 113 consumer complaints about “misleading and inaccurate advertisements on airlines’ websites, social media, emails, and text messages” (the database doesn’t specifically track complaints related to airlines’ website design). The Biden Administration has proposed rules that would require companies across industries, including the airline industry, to show full prices upfront, including any fees charged to sit with your child, for changing or canceling your flight, and for checked or carry-on baggage. The DOT is scheduled to issue its final rule on Enhancing Transparency of Airline Ancillary Service Fees in March 2024.
In the meantime, here are some of the dark patterns and selling techniques to look out for when searching for airfare.
In his book, Deceptive Patterns, Brignull lays out the design strategies that airlines—and others—use to get people to spend more. One technique that he names is misdirection: when an eye-catching design element is deployed to distract you from something else. On airline booking sites, this can take the form of bold fonts in bright boxes that encourage you to click on an upgraded ticket option, for example, while less expensive fares appear in small letters that blend in with the website’s background and often aren’t clearly hyperlinked.
Nagging can take the form of pop-ups and follow-up emails that ask you to reconsider choices that you’ve already made. Delta, for example, throws up a pop-up window after you’ve selected a basic economy seat warning you to reconsider or accept the fare’s restrictive terms. Southwest Airlines sends emails with the subject line, “Have you booked your rental car?” after you’ve already declined a rental car reservation while buying your ticket. And when you purchase a ticket on United Airlines, the page with your confirmation number also suggests upgrading to business class.
While airlines don’t use things like prominent countdown timers during the ticket-purchasing process (a practice that’s rampant in event ticket sales), some carriers—especially low-cost airlines—display messages warning fliers that seats at their desired fare are scarce. EasyJet also lets customers know when the fare they’re eyeing was last purchased by someone else (e.g., “Last booked 54 minutes ago”) inserting a sense of competition to the booking process. These messages add stress to a situation that’s inherently time sensitive. “Urgency can be sensible and genuine,” says Brignull. “There are only so many seats on that flight we want, so we know we have to hurry or we’ll miss out. But our appreciation of urgency is something that can be abused.”
People who speak English as a second language are especially susceptible to such manipulations, Brignull says, as are people who are simply short on time. “If you’re in a rush—or if the shopping experience makes you feel rushed—you might not have the capacity to process what you’re being manipulated into buying versus buying what you actually need.”
PRICE COMPARISON PREVENTION
There’s also price comparison prevention, when airlines make it difficult for users to compare different fare options or don’t spell out final price tags when things like baggage and seat selections are included. While some airlines, like Delta and American, have unveiled cleaner website layouts with side-by-side ticket and fare options—in the style of a “good, better, and best” model, with bullet points of what is and isn’t included in a fare—other airlines like Spirit and Frontier muddy the waters with things like seasonal passes and membership offers that give little detail on how much they save you on fares and fees. Many airlines also push you to pay for luggage online rather than at the airport, threatening higher fees if you wait, without spelling out the price difference.
Airlines also offer commission-based extras like hotels, rental cars, and travel insurance (often while you’re desperately trying to complete your purchase), but they aren’t padded with enough information to make educated decisions. Travel insurance is, perhaps, the worst offender, as terms are too complicated to review quickly. “Policies purchased via airlines typically have significant limitations on coverage that travelers only uncover after things have gone awry,” says Elad Schaffer, cofounder and CEO of Faye Travel Insurance. Take United’s insurance option, which leads with the statement, “Cover your trip with a Travel Guard travel insurance plan.” United uses the word “trip,” but the insurance only potentially covers the ticket cost, and not things like your hotel or rental car, even if you book them via the airline’s website. You’re also not compensated for flight-related inconveniences such as 24 hours of missing luggage.
IdeaWorks president Jay Sorensen doesn’t believe that deceptive design is the norm for the industry, though he sees room for overall improvement. He also emphasizes how important ancillary sales are to airlines today: They provide a layer of fiscal stability while base fares fluctuate according to supply and demand. “Airfares, on an inflated adjusted basis, have been declining for more than a decade,” he says. “Low fares and ancillary revenue are joined at the hip. You can’t have one without the other.”
One thing that has been lost as airlines focus on retail efforts, Sorensen says: the magic of air travel. “Airline websites are great transaction machines,” he notes. “But in terms of creating some kind of wonderment about traveling, they fail completely.” Whether airlines can tap back into that magic—while also pushing a $79 upgrade for six extra inches of legroom—remains to be seen.
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