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Airlines play hardball over à  la carte fees, but passengers balk

Don’t like paying à la carte fees for onboard meals, extra legroom and other optional services when you fly? You’re not alone.

According to a just-released report from PhoCusWright, passenger resistance to paying for services they used to get for free may be even higher than suspected. While more than half of passengers (58 percent) pay to check bags, far fewer are willing to whip out their wallets for most other services.

The report, "Heat from the Middle Seat: The U.S. Consumer Perspective on Air Travel," suggests that even as airlines become increasingly dependent on ancillary revenue streams, the money may amount to more of a trickle.

While baggage fees are clearly a breadwinner — almost $3 billion for U.S. airlines last year — passengers appear to be balking at other fee-based services. One in three passengers has paid for advanced seat selection, says PhoCusWright, while roughly a quarter pay for meals or snacks. Just 15 percent pay for in-flight entertainment, with even fewer forking over cash (or a credit card) for in-flight Internet access, extra legroom or priority boarding.

"It’s gotten to the point where even affluent travelers who can afford to pay for these services are saying 'no thanks,' " said Director of Research Carroll Rheem. "They’re saying, 'I know it might make my experience better, but I just don’t want to give [the airline] any more money.' "

Of course, passenger anger over ancillary fees is hardly breaking news, but the numbers may have a larger significance. Access to ancillary-fee information is a major sticking point in the ongoing squabble between carriers, such as American Airlines, and their online partners, including Orbitz and Sabre. If consumers aren’t buying, it undercuts one of the main reasons American wants to bypass other distribution channels.

"They’re playing hardball," said Rheem, "but it’s the consumer who gets to decide."

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.