First, they charge you to take bags on a vacation with you, now $80 for an aisle seat he wanted on a Virgin Atlantic flight SOURCE When weather forecasters predicted severe winter storms across the country in the past few weeks, airlines sent their customers a steady stream of e-mail and text messages, giving them a chance to change their itineraries ahead of the bad weather. Those who took advantage of the waivers had what has become a rare consolation in air travel: They received a service from the airlines without having to pay for it. In the space of 18 months, the concept of a plane ticket has been transformed from an all-inclusive purchase to a pay-as-you-go plan, turning the relationship between airlines and customers increasingly sour. Every time a passenger books a ticket, it seems, major airlines have come up with more ways to charge for what once was free, like fees for reserving more desirable seats in the economy section of the plane. David Stewart, a commodities trader in New York, was stunned to learn last week that he would have to pay $80 for an aisle seat he wanted on a Virgin Atlantic flight to London. Stewart, who is 6-foot-5, says he managed to cajole a gate agent into seating him there anyway. But ahead of and behind him, an entire section of aisle seats sat empty, apparently because other passengers declined to pay for them. "It's bad customer service," says Stewart. "It would be in their interests to do this better." A Virgin spokeswoman called the fee "common practice within the industry." Adding to travelers' frustration is that the long-cited reason for the switch to "a la carte" pricing - record oil prices - is no longer the driving force behind the changes. Instead, airlines now cite their inability to make money, and consumers' resistance to higher ticket prices, as their reason for thinking up new ways to make customers pay extra. Over the past decade, they lost $55 billion, according to the International Air Transport Association, the airlines' global trade group. And the outlook for 2010 remains glum. "We need to return to profitability, and we need to do so immediately," says Mark Bergsrud, the senior vice president for marketing at Continental Airlines, echoing what has become an industry mantra. He and some other airline executives offer another line of reasoning for the new environment: the me-too factor. Cell-phone providers, sports arenas and theaters all add charges on top of the basic price of what they sell. Customers are used to it, so why shouldn't the airlines join in? "It's something that's happening throughout business," Bergsrud says, "and we're just slower getting there than many others." Consumer advocates say the tactic will ultimately backfire. "I frankly think the airlines are going to find out that these unbundling gimmicks do not work," says Paul Hudson, a lawyer and the executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project. "People will reach a point and say, 'That's it.' " There is disagreement about the practice, even in the industry. Robin Hayes, an executive vice president and chief commercial officer at JetBlue Airways, acknowledges that customers find the charges very annoying. "On the whole, for the last 10 years, the industry has done a really rotten job of looking after passengers," he says. While many customers have accepted the changes, that's because "there's very little choice," Hayes says. "But the industry would be foolish" to keep adding new charges for things passengers had become accustomed to receiving in the ticket price. JetBlue has added some fees, but not to check the first bag and it still serves some complimentary snacks. Bergsrud, however, sees the airline industry becoming much more like the hotel industry, which has long charged different room rates based on location and amenities. "It's like hotels with an ocean, a garden and a parking-lot view," Bergsrud says. He theorizes that passengers having the toughest time accepting the changes are those who fly only a few times a year, while business travelers and those often on the road take the new atmosphere in stride - in part because they earn enough frequent-flier miles to be exempt from many charges. Graham Howe, a banker in London who flies often, disagrees. "It's taking advantage of the customer," he says. "It all adds up." Airlines say they are not unsympathetic. Daniel P. Garton, the executive vice president for marketing at American Airlines, says its surveys have reflected passengers' discomfort as the airlines take apart their tickets and recalculate what they want to include in the basic price. But the surveys show that more than half of customers understand why American has had to charge for things they used to expect free, a response Garton finds encouraging. "We're still going through the hardest part of it, because we are unbundling what for the better part of 70 years has been a fixed-price menu," Garton says. "You have to get through this phase so people can get used to it." Major airlines have been cutting back on frills for more than two decades, ever since American began reducing the number of olives it served in each salad. Hot meals were among the first to go on short flights, sacrificed in a wave of cuts after the September 2001 attacks. But lately, the pace of change has been faster, and made travel more complex, uncomfortable and aggravating. Surrender your civil liberties and get raped by fees to fly ... I hate traveling today.