USA Today, February 15, 2006
The best things in life are free—for now
Contrary to myth, American consumers aren't stupid. So why do we keep
getting ripped off?
By Steve Kluger
When Butch and Sundance did it, they were called bandits. When transportation
carriers and Internet providers do it, they're called Fortune 500.
The airlines recently announced that in an effort to meet rising fuel costs, they will
soon begin charging for amenities that we have long since taken for granted. At
present, these “luxuries” include checked baggage, extra leg room, Diet Cokes and
pillows (which, presumably, will continue to resemble rice paper envelopes stuffed
with shredded wheat)—with carry-on baggage, aisle seats, window seats and
advance seat assignments predicted to follow.
One can only imagine what's coming next: Crying-baby fees, going-down-the-wrong-
aisle fees, evacuation fees (payable upon exit in the event of an emergency landing)
and sliding-scale storage fees, depending on whether the suitcase you successfully
squeezed into the overhead bin is larger than a Volvo—and if so, by how much.
Meanwhile, travelers are assured that such surcharges might permit the carriers to
turn a healthy profit while allowing the fares themselves to remain reasonable. Who
are they kidding? Under this particular fleecing arrangement, a first-class ticket from
Chicago to South America only has to cost $29. Round-trip!
Similarly, both America Online and Yahoo—having apparently concluded that we've
had it way too easy for way too long—now feel empowered to implement “preferred”
e-mail status at a cost of up to a penny per mouse click. What does “preferred
status” mean? It means your e-mail gets there. Period. As opposed to what?! The
companies insist that this is merely a spam-preventing measure that should not be
taken for the petty larceny it might ordinarily be called, and they're right. “Blackmail”
sounds a lot classier.
In any epidemic, it's always difficult to trace the virus to its source. But in the
consumer-surcharge plague,Patient Zero is clearly the baseball ticket. Believe it or
not, there was a time when a third-base seat at most major league parks cost only
$7. That's what it said on the front. $7. That's what they told you over the phone.
$7. It was so relatively inexpensive that nobody paid much attention to the innocuous
“service charge” that snuck in there about 15 years ago.
These days, an itemized invoice for the same product would reflect—in addition to a
service charge that devours even its young—a processing fee, a convenience fee, a
handling fee and a delivery fee (from where to where is never made quite clear).
Taken all together, it'd be cheaper to buy a minor league franchise instead.
We have only ourselves to blame. We let them get away with it:
● FREE BONUS SHOPPER'S GUIDE! Translation: As though we would have left
those eight pages blank.
● 30-DAY TRIAL PERIOD AT ABSOLUTELY NO CHARGE! Translation: We're
asking for your credit card number only because we're inquisitive people.
● TECHNICAL SUPPORT AVAILABLE 24 HOURS A DAY! Translation: From India.
For $25 per call.
● 3,000 FREE ANYTIME MINUTES! Translation: Plus a connection fee, a
promotional fee and a tea tax.
● LOW-COST HEALTH INSURANCE! Translation: We cover Band-Aids and
So maybe it's time to knock off the swindle and come clean—before somebody
begins charging us for bodily functions, too. Contrary to popular belief, consumers
aren't stupid. Just because we can't spell, punctuate, or form at least an uneasy
alliance with “your” and “you're” doesn't mean we don't know when we're being taken
for a ride.
So give us back our pillows and our leg room and our lousy airline food and just tell
us that we're going to have to pay more. We might even do it.
And incidentally—what the hell is a convenience fee anyway?