Our nickel-and-dime slide to libertarian hell

Proof of societal decline: A $5 fee if you don't print out your own boarding pass

Published June 22, 2011 8:47PM (EDT)

Spirit Airlines, an ultra-low cost discount airline that mainly serves Caribbean destinations, announced Monday that later this year it will start charging a $5 dollar fee to passengers who haven't printed out their own boarding passes. In 2012, the airline will charge a $1 dollar fee to passengers who use airport kiosks to print out passes.

The airline bills the move as a way to offer passengers even lower prices. In conjunction with the move, ticket prices will drop -- by $5. So even if you forget to print out your boarding pass, you're not really losing, right? You're just not gaining that new discount.

But I don't think I'm alone in feeling irked at this news. Even though I was an eager early adopter of online check-in technology, and almost never arrive at an airport without boarding pass already in hand, I am nonetheless disgruntled at the thought of yet another fee lying in wait to ambush me if I screw up.

Contemporary air travel confronts us with fees for checked bags, carry-on bags, extra-heavy bags, accelerated passage through security checks, headphones, on-demand movies, priority boarding, onboard meals, wifi, blankets, extra leg room and who knows what else. And while I appreciate the value of some things more than others -- Virgin America's wifi: Yay! $7 dollar Jetblue blanket: Boo! -- this inexorable atomization of the air travel experience into every possible component part, available for mix-and-matching as I choose, makes me queasy.

Maybe it's generational -- maybe I miss that long ago state of grace where all I had to do was buy a ticket and I knew what I was getting. Maybe it's just cynical -- the proliferation of fees is clearly a great way to squeeze extra profit out of supposedly bargain-basement fares.

Or maybe there's something deeper at work here -- maybe the thing that seems wrong to me is the sense that the changing nature of the air travel experience is window into a much larger transformation of society. Maybe what really bothers me is the thought that the fee-based future offers a glimpse at a libertarian utopia in which all our ongoing existential dilemmas are solved by defining every modality through the increasingly discerning choices we make as consumers.

Wait a minute -- utopia? Or nightmare?

"We believe it is important to let customers decide what is of value to them. We want to give them the ability to choose the extras they want without forcing them to pay for add-ons they don't want or need," said Spirit President and CEO Ben Baldanza in a press release. "Why would you want to pay for services you don't use?"

Why indeed? Seems to make sense. Then again, why should residents of a school district who don't have young children pay taxes that fund the local elementary school? Liberals might well wonder why they subsidize tax breaks for oil companies, war in Afghanistan, and financial aid to students studying creationism at Liberty University. But they are matched by conservatives don't want to pay for health care, or NPR, or reproductive family planning.

Believe me, I can see the attraction of filling out a tax form that designates my hard-earned dollars fund only those products that I want to buy! Healthcare for the indigent: Check! But do we even get to call ourselves a "society" in that kind of future? Or just the United States of Customers of America?

I know this might seem like a stretch. But when I contemplate paying a fee to use the airline kiosk followed by another fee to go through the security fast lane followed by another fee to board my plane one minute before everyone else followed by another fee for two inches more of leg room followed by another fee for a movie tailored to my particular demographic, and then I extrapolate this way of being to every other possible interaction I might have with the real world, inside and outside of airports, I don't feel much like a human being participating in a civilized society.

I feel, instead, like a cog in a great machine, defining myself and everyone else solely in terms of how much cash I'm willing to pay for anything and everything. And yes, that irks me, even as I make extra-sure to print out my boarding pass.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Air Travel How The World Works Libertarianism