Like the jumbo jets at San Francisco International Airport, airline fees have truly taken off.
Last year alone, U.S. airlines charged $3.8 billion in baggage fees plus another $3 billion in cancellation and change fees, according to Department of Transportation data.
Fees aren’t solely an American phenomenon, either.
International air carriers are charging passengers fees for bags, seats, and more, too.
Karen Gawron got hit with the lesser known no-show fee.
"$600 per person," she said.
This summer, Gawron and her husband flew to a wedding in India. For the journey home to San Ramon, they were booked on two airlines with two connections. First, Air India, then two flights on Emirates.
But the Air India flight landed late, so Karen and her husband missed their first Emirates flight. Karen said the airline’s response was less than sympathetic.
"'I'm sorry. There's a no-show penalty,'" she recalled airline officials saying.
"We had no idea," Gawron said.
Emirates charged them $600 each to reinstate their ticket and re-book onto the next Emirates flight – even though their tardiness was beyond their control. The only alternative was buying a new one-way ticket to San Francisco, which was even more expensive.
"They really had us over a barrel," she recalled. "We had no choice."
Emirates told Gawron she agreed to the no-show fee when she made her reservation. She said she was unaware.
"The most expensive fee is hidden between these long documents that you have no idea when you book the ticket," she said.
When she got home, Gawron asked NBC Bay Area Responds if we could elicit some compassion from Emirates – and perhaps reduce the $1,200 penalty she paid. We tried, but the airline didn’t budge.
Emirates' full statement to NBC Bay Area Responds said: "No-show fees are stated on our website at the time of booking."
So, we contacted travel attorney Adam Anolik.
"Unfortunately, all these fees are printed in something called a 'contract of carriage,' which you agree to every time you purchase a ticket from the airline," he said.
We printed Emirates’ contract of carriage. It’s 38 pages long – single spaced.
Other airlines contracts are even longer. Delta’s is 69 pages; American’s is 110.
Anolik is one of the very few people who ever reads these novels. He says passengers who want to protect themselves should join him in this "light" reading.
"If you’re spending a lot of money on this ticket, you’ve got to spend some time looking through the contract of carriage to know what you’re bound to," he said.
But even if you do read the fine print, there’s another problem.
Airlines sometimes use shorthand and internal language to spell out important terms.
Case in point: NONREF/0VALUAFTDPT/CHGFEE
We found that jumble on some United Airlines’ receipts.
When decoded, NONREF/0VALUAFTDPT/CHGFEE tells passengers that their ticket is non refundable, that it has zero value if they don’t cancel before departure time, and that changes also trigger a fee.
We asked United if a cluster of 25 characters is clear enough for consumers.
The airline said this string of text isn’t the only place passengers can see possible penalties and fees.
"This information is also disclosed at the time of booking under the Fare Rules information page during the purchase process," a spokesperson said.
That’s true. But is it helpful?
We found, then printed the rules for a flight from San Francisco and Orlando. 13 pages. And, like United receipts, lots of airline jargon.
Anolik wants all airlines to do a better job literally spelling out their terms and conditions. However, he bets passengers will have to prompt that kind of upgrade.
"When are we going to say something about the length of these contracts and the enforceability of these contracts, if they just keep getting longer and longer and are printed in more and more legalese?" he asked.
As for Gawron, she doesn’t regret the trip.
"I’m still very glad that we went." she said.
But she wishes she’d given herself a bigger buffer.
"More time in-between flights," Gawron explained.
That’s her recommendation for you.
Her advice for airlines: more obvious disclosure of all possible penalties passengers might have to pay.
"It has to be known," Gawron said. "It has to be clear to the consumer."
To minimize the risks Gawron and her husband faced, try to avoid reservations that include multiple airlines.
Here’s another important piece of advice to avoid no-show fees: if you’re going to miss your flight, call to alert the airline as quickly as possible and always before your flight is supposed to take off.
Some airlines require an advance call. If you don’t, you might forfeit 100 percent of your ticket’s value, which would force you to either buy a new, one-way ticket on the spot – or not fly.