Northwest Imposes Fees for Offline Bookings

Northwest announced new booking fees yesterday. While revenue and award tickets booked on their website will not incur a charge, tickets booked over the phone will cost an extra $5 and tickets booked at the airport will cost an extra $10.

Travel agents will also have to pay $7.50 for booking domestic flights through a Global Distribution System rather than through Northwest’s proprietary system (though Orbitz and its “supplier link” is specifically exempt).

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the fee will stick or not, but it begins August 27th (September 1 for travel agents).

While Northwest has an excellent website compared to many of its competitors, the website is inadequate for many bookings. In the case of searching for award bookings, live agents are still superior. The recommendation, then, is to call up Northwest to search for awards and then plug the specific criteria they’ve found into the website to book in order to avoid the fee.

Naturally we can expect higher travel agency fees for Northwest bookings, especially from smaller agencies. Larger agencies may be able to negotiate larger “overrides” from Northwest to offset the booking fees.

The airport ticketing fee is somewhat troubling. Airport ticketing is necessary for some itineraries, when city ticket offices used to suffice. Northwest saved money by closing those offices, driving ticketing to the airport. Now they’re charging for airport ticketing. Their explanation of cost savings doesn’t make sense here: they aren’t paying an outside agent, their own ticket agents are issuing the tickets, and those agents usually give priority to passengers checking in in any case which means that airport ticketing is done in otherwise unproductive employee time that Northwest is already paying for.

What’s more, one class of customers doing airport ticketing is the last set you want to annoy: full fare, walkup passengers. It seems strange to tax them. I’d expect Northwest to at least waive the fee on full fares.

Meanwhile, Sabre is fighting back. They argue that Northwest is violating its agreement with the GDS by imposing a charge on travel agents for using their system.

    Sabre announced that they intend to institute measures that will make it more difficult for travel agents and consumers to view Northwest flights and purchase Northwest tickets. Sabre also announced that it plans to increase the fees that Northwest must pay Sabre.

Ultimately I’d be surprised if the policy stuck in its current form without modification. Sure, they can impose the fee on award tickets – customers can’t take their miles to another carrier. But they’ve just made their tickets more expensive to many consumers, and most price increases haven’t held when other carriers failed to match. Moreover, unlike Independence Air and JetBlue, Northwest is touting their charge as an extra fee rather than a discount for booking online. Rhetorically this just seems like poor execution.


Update: James Surowiecki agrees that Northwest has done an idiotic job framing their changes.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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