How Much for That Aisle Seat?

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TOM HUSSEY / GETTY

Seats on an Airplane.

Airlines are in trouble. That's hardly news to anyone who has followed the bankruptcies, cost-cutting and other financial woes the industry has endured in recent years. But the extra $15 you have to pay on Northwest Airlines to get a roomy aisle seat — now that's something that can get a frequent flyer riled up.

Despite some recent rate hikes — low-fare titan Southwest Airlines just broke its four-year one-way cap of $299 — fares across the industry, adjusted for inflation, are no higher than they were in the 1980s and 15% below those of 2000. Demand is up too: in 2005 over 75% of seats were full. But with rising fuel costs pinching the bottom line, the airlines are looking to boost revenue in other ways — by charging for amenities that used to be free.

Northwest joined the charge last month with its Coach Choice program, in which flyers pay more for the seats most in demand: $15 for the roomier aisle and exit row seats. The airline reports that sales for the program are "running ahead of expectations," despite protests from frequent travelers who claim they would prefer a $5-$10 price hike across the board.

It's part of a growing airborne trend. Consider the other nickel-and-diming that airlines have begun experimenting with:

- Paper tickets. Airlines want to encourage you to use e-tickets, and many charge extra if you buy your tickets on the phone, rather than online. Not all are as tough as US Airways, though, which slaps on a stiff $50 extra for a paper ticket

- Checked bags. A $25 surcharge for bags that weigh more than 50 lbs. is commonplace. American now also puts a surcharge of $2 on baggage checked in at curbside.

- Creature comforts. Air Canada charges $2 for a pillow and blanket. At least they still have them; some airlines have simply eliminated the comfy amenities altogether.

- Food and drink. Charging for meals has become routine. American Airlines has eliminated even the free peanuts, charging $4 for a snack tray instead. Its commuter cousin, American Eagle briefly experimented with charging $1 for soft drinks in January, but quit the program when customers balked.

Industry spokespeople argue that such luxury pricing is needed to keep the base fares low, and is no different from the extravagant prices you pay at concerts and sporting events. "You go to a baseball game and pay six bucks for a hot dog," says John Heimlich, chief economist for the Air Transportation Association. Pillows, blankets, the best seats—"those luxuries are things that we're not baking into the price anymore," he says. "Every little bit helps."

But not every airline is falling in line. "The industry is not monolithic, says Heimlich, "and one airline's move does not an industry make." Just this week JetBlue announced a venture with the New York-based Bliss spas to offer free kits — including eyemasks, lip balm, and skin moisturizer—on redeye flights, in addition to a free self-serve pantry filled with snacks and beverages. They're counting on making up the cost by selling more seats. Whether it works remains to be seen. But in the annual Airline Quality Rating, released this week, JetBlue was No. 1.