This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

US airlines are making money hand over fist, yet most of them are worsening the passenger experience, especially for economy travelers. American Airlines just reduced the legroom on its new 737 MAX 8s.

The big three legacy carriers have also introduced basic economy fares so passengers are charged for seat selection and carry-on bags. Fares have dropped over the years due to increased competition from low-cost carriers like Norwegian and Spirit, internationally and within the US — and airlines are actually making those profits on something other than the price of tickets.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, airlines make their profit by all the ancillary fees they charge customers. So when you’re paying that $25 to check a bag or $8 to select a seat, that’s going straight to an airline’s bottom line. Airfare, or the cost of just the base ticket itself, is used to cover operating costs (i.e. salaries, jet fuel and aircraft maintenance).

US Department of Transportation data says that airlines will likely make $4 billion from baggage fees and $3 billion in reservation-change and cancellation fees in 2017 — that $7 billion is more than half of the net profits that US airlines reported last year.

The Wall Street Journal ran the numbers of average profit per passenger and relative to the average fare. Interestingly enough, the airlines that charge the fewest fees — Alaska, JetBlue and  Southwest actually made the largest profit per passenger. Southwest, which allows every customer two free checked bags, a perk completely unmatched in the US market, still beat out larger airlines like Delta and United.

Airline Average Profit Per Passenger in 2017 Average Fare
JetBlue $29 $157
Alaska $23 $155
Southwest $22 $147
Delta $19 $187
Spirit $17 $109
United $14 $219
American $10 $181
Average $18 $177

And, those larger airlines actually had higher average fares than Southwest! So Southwest is making a larger profit and charging considerably less in airfare and fees. Its profit margin was 16.5%, the highest in the industry, compared to American Airlines which placed last with a measly 4.5%.

It seems counter-intuitive that the airlines charging the lowest fees and with the lowest average fares are actually making the most profit. Some of it can be chalked up to their operations. JetBlue, Southwest and Alaska all operate a solely single-aisle fleet, and Southwest flies only one type of aircraft, the Boeing 737. These efficiencies and low operating costs can add up to some real savings for airlines.

Profits are also boosted by the airline’s deals with banks to purchase frequent flyer miles. Some reports even say a majority of their profits come from these deals — Delta said it expected to receive $4 billion in revenue per year through 2021 from American Express through its credit card co-brand partnership.

Still, higher fuel and labor costs have nipped at airline’s profits. Jet fuel prices rose 26% from 2016 levels and may increase another 10% in 2018. AA’s CEO Doug Parker said that ticket prices are too low in relation to fuel costs and that they’ll rise over time.

Featured photo by izusek/Getty Images

Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card

This cash back card has a focus on dining and entertainment where you can earn unlimited 4% cash back in those spending categories. You can also earn 2% cash back at grocery stores and 1% cash back on all other purchases.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn a one-time $500 cash bonus after you spend $3000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening
  • Earn unlimited 4% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores and 1% on all other purchases
  • No rotating categories or sign-ups needed to earn cash rewards; plus cash back won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how much you can earn
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Access to premium experiences in dining, entertainment and more
  • $0 intro annual fee for the first year, $95 after that
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
16.24% - 25.24% (Variable)
Annual Fee
$0 intro for first year; $95 after that
Balance Transfer Fee
$0
Recommended Credit
Excellent, Good

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.