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Maneuvering Through Add-on Costs at Airline Kiosks

Like many airline passengers, Ian Ayres isn’t thrilled about having to pay extra to check his luggage, get an onboard snack and for other perks once included in a flight fare. But an additional $75 for a seat with extra legroom?

“That’s a rather high price,” says Ayres, 51, an economist, author and lawyer who writes the New York Times ’ Freakonomics blog.

But what really irks the Yale University professor is where he was almost pulled into paying that price for a few extra inches of comfort: at an airline ticketing kiosk, which is supposed to speed the ticketing process for hurried passengers.

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“The shadiness of it all is that the ‘Accept’ button was in the same lower corner, and looked exactly like the ‘Continue’ button of previous screens,” notes Ayres. “I definitely think this is purposely designed to try and trick passengers. It’s a free-market world, but why not put it as a distinct red button so people can avoid a mistake while running for a flight?”

So beware: Use an electronic kiosk to check in for a United Airlines flight, for example, and you’ll likely have to navigate three additional extra-cost hurdles—to speed through security lines, buy frequent flier miles or get a business-class upgrade.

For United Airlines passenger and WalletPop blogger Jason Cochran, the total of these tack-ons would have been nearly $524 had he not carefully read each word on each screen.

“Passengers who are late for their flights are much less likely to correctly decipher the screens,” Cochran says. “Older and confused passengers, too, are more likely to hit the ‘Accept’ button, mistaking it for ‘Proceed.’ ”

United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski wrote by e-mail that it’s nearly impossible for passengers to be charged for unwanted upgrades. “The fact is, after you push the button there are several things one must do to make the purchase,” she wrote. “A more appropriate ‘warning’ would be to not enter your credit card number twice and confirm a purchase if you do not want to buy the added perks.”

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of “Scam-Proof Your Life.”