À la carte air travel

Frontier Airlines is set to resume its seasonal service between Denver and Durango. That is a welcome return. A little competition never hurt consumers, and it will be interesting to see how United responds with its fares to Denver.

At the same time, though, Frontier has announced that it has “unbundled” ticket prices from whatever else the airline may be selling. What that means is that the actual ticket price – plus taxes and fees – is supposed to entitle the ticket holder to nothing more than to get on the plane. It might not even do that if the passenger has not yet reserved a seat, which in any case may well involve an additional charge.

How much this will affect Southwest Colorado travelers would seem to depend. For Cortez travelers, the big question anymore seems to be not one of cost, but simply whether ticketed passengers will have an airplane and pilot available at the appointed time. Intermittent service is no service at all, and if one is stranded on the ground, the price of baggage service is matters little.

But for the increasing number of residents from all parts of the Four Corners who travel through Durango-La Plata County Airport, changes at Frontier could well matter. And for all air travelers, those changes look to be what we can expect to see from all airlines.

What an “unbundled” ticket most certainly will mean is the passengers paying for any but the most expensive tickets will be charged extra for carry-on bags, sometimes for checked bags and usually for almost all other amenities. Frontier says one carry-on will be $25 if paid for online, $35 at the ticket counter and $50 at the gate.

There could be an upside to that. Departures may not be delayed as flight attendants try to help people stuff overfilled bags, strollers, coats and computers into the overhead bins. Nor will passengers have to wait as long on landing while all that stuff is retrieved.

But at heart, this move is meant to keep entry-level ticket prices low, while charging for what now are considered extras. It follows the trend of also charging for checked bags already seen in differing circumstances and degrees.

Frontier’s CEO put it this way: “With an unbundled product, customers can save even more by choosing to pay for only the products that they want, allowing them to customize their flight experience for each and every flight.”

And that is true. Forego the carry-on bag – and the toiletries and change of clothes it contains. Give up on food, any beverage except the water bottle purchased at the airport, forget about legroom, do without the increasingly common Wi-Fi or any entertainment, rejoice in the center seat, and one just might save a few dollars.

But for planning purposes, that low fare should not be assumed, at least not after all costs are included. It would be better for travelers simply to accept that the advertised price for air travel these days is an inaccurate loss leader meant only to gin up interest. It is not unlike magazine ads for foreign-flagged airlines showing air travelers soundly sleeping in lay-flat seats or enjoying a cocktail at the on-board bar – attractive, but for most, unrealistic.

Of course, those extras matter much less on a short hop to Denver. In that situation, the competition for United could make a larger impact than the fees for carry-ons. And for that, welcome back Frontier.

Or course, any additional editorial kindness will be $25, if paid online; $35 at the door.

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