Cheap Air Fares: Just Add Surcharges

America’s airlines—they’re the ones who have told passengers to take a flying leap—have wallpapered the country with ads focusing upon how inexpensive their basic airfares are.

While I don’t enjoy flying, I recently had to get from here to there and back. A few of the details are hazy, but I’m sure this is how my conversation went with a ticket agent.

“I’d like a ticket,” I said with a smile.

“No problem,” said the agent, equally smiling, “that’d be $300.”

“But I didn’t tell you where I’m going.”

“Makes no difference. We’re running a special this month. Anywhere for only $300. Now, would you like a seat?”

“Of course I’d like a seat!” I said.

“$75,” said the agent.

“But you said the ticket was only $300.”

“And it is. But if you’d like a seat, that’s a surcharge.”

“That’s outrageous. What if I didn’t want a seat?”

“We have a special this month only. No seat is only $25.”

“$25 for not getting a seat?”

“No, sir,” said the agent. “The $25 is for a strap on the ceiling to hold onto.”

“What if I don’t want a strap?”

“Sir, the FAA requires it.”

“Give me a seat,” I said reluctantly.”

“Fine. One seat. Now will that be a window seat, an aisle seat, or one of the five pencil-thin narrow seats between them?”

“An aisle seat would be nice,” I said.

“$50 said the agent.”

“You charge for a seat and another charge for an aisle seat? I asked incredulous.

“It’s a lot cheaper than a window seat.”

“Why is it less than a window seat?”

“Everyone knows that in a window seat you can look out at absolutely nothing but clouds, but get the joy of inconveniencing the other passengers as much as you want when you have to go to the bathroom.”

“I suppose there’s a charge for the bathroom,” I said sarcastically.

“$5 a visit,” she said matter-of-factly. “Now, would you like lunch on your flight?”

“How much?”

“It’s $10, and you get a choice of day-old chicken salad sandwich or recently unfrozen cheese sandwich, each with five potato chips.” I selected the ebola chicken salad. “Something to wash it down? We have a wide variety of almost-cold drinks. “$3 for soda, $5 for any micro-mini liquor. But if you buy three or more, you get one free bathroom pass.”

“Can I just pass on the drinks right now and decide once I’m in the air?”

“Not a problem,” she said just as sweetly, “but there’s a surcharge for last-minute decisions. We have to add a buck to each drink. And we take only cash. Clean, unmarked, crisp bills in the exact amount.” I bought two sodas. “Diet or regular?”


“That’d be fifty cents more for each soda.”

“That’s outrageous. You can go to any soda machine in the country and buy two diet sodas for the same price as regular sodas. And they’re only a buck or so apiece.”

“Really? That’s strange. I’ll have to look into that. So, that’s $6 for two sodas plus a buck for the surcharge. Now, do you have luggage you’re taking?”

“How much?”

“Only $50 a bag. Carry-on bags are only $30. How many bags, sir?”

“One checked bag and one carry-on bag.”

“Yes, sir, that’ll be $160.”

Apparently she didn’t ace her SAT math test. “You said a checked bag was $50, and a carry-on was $30. That’s only $80.”

“I’m just assuming you’d want them to return with you. Most passengers do.”

“You mean the $80 is for one-way only?”

“That’s what the illegible fine print says. Most people prefer to bring their bags back with them.”

“Do most people prefer to take trains?” I asked. She let it pass unnoticed.

“Now, sir, if you’ll just step on the scale.”

“You mean I should put my bags on the scale,” I said.

“No, sir, I mean you should put you on the scale. It costs more in jet fuel if we have passengers, so we add a weight surcharge.” I complied with her request. “That’ll be an extra $15,” she said.

“For what?!”

“According to our weight charts, you’re 15 pounds overweight. We charge a dollar a pound.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “My physician says I’m within the normal weight range.”

“Sir, I don’t wish to argue with you, but according to our charts you’re overweight. We can’t have you slowing down our plane’s speed because of your bulk.”

“Who prepares these charts! The Society of Anorexic Actuaries?”

“No, sir,” said the ticket agent proudly, we have only professionals. Last month, it was one of the women from ‘Friends.’ I think next month it’ll be Nicole Richie.”

“I assume if someone is underweight, you give them a refund?” It took her two minutes to stop laughing.

“Is there anything else you would like to make your flight more enjoyable?” she asked. “Seat belts, barf bags, headsets for music or an abridged and censored movie?”

I took one of each, and she began calculating the costs. ” . . . And, finally, there’s the gas surcharge, state, federal, cloud, and runway taxes—”

“I have to pay for the runway?!”

“You do want to land don’t you?” She gave me the total. “Would you like a shot of oxygen with that?” she asked. I gave her two bucks more.

[Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Sex and the Single Beer Can, a witty look at the mass media and American culture. It’s available at and other online stores.]

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About Walter Brasch

Columnist, author, journalism professor. Latest book is BEFORE THE FIRST SNOW: STORIES FROM THE REVOLUTION, a look at the couterculture from 1964, as seen through the eyes of a "flower child" who is now middle-aged--and of the reporter who covered her story. The book is available through . . . Check out website, for further info. Or, just write me:
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