Has the airline industry won the luggage fee war?
Consider the following facts:
• Airlines earned $566 million from checked baggage fees in the first quarter, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That’s more than four times as much as it collected for the same period a year before.
• Air carriers have publicly declared that passengers accept the fees. Only a few brave travel pundits are challenging those claims, but it appears no one is listening to them.
• Far from backing down, airlines are now raising the baggage fees. The latest is American Airlines, which famously introduced the idea of a $15 fee for the first checked bag. Uh, make that $20.
But a key to this devastatingly successful PR campaign is the mass acceptance of certain statements that aren’t entirely accurate. The airline industry as a whole wants us to embrace the following myths about checked luggage fees:
1. “We need to offset high energy prices.”
That may have swayed some passengers when oil was at $125 a barrel, a price that American Airlines’ chief executive Gerard Arpey complained the industry was “not built to withstand.” But oil is trading at around $70 a barrel today. Not exactly a bargain, but the airline industry is still flying, thanks very much.
2. “You’re only paying for what you use.”
Another flawed argument used by airlines and airline apologists is that the first-bag fee allows travelers to only pay for what they use. Oh really? There are lots of amenities that are considered a part of the airline ticket that don’t get used by every passenger, including a waiting area at the gate, beverage service, restrooms and those compelling in-flight magazines. By that logic, we should begin to “unbundle” those too.
3. “If we added a free checked bag, we’d have to raise fares by $15.”
That’s highly unlikely. Remember, none of the airlines lowered their fares by $15 across the board when they added the first checked-bag fee. Fact is, airlines don’t control their fares — we do. Fluctuations of only a few dollars are enough to drive us away — or send us to our computers to book. And airlines know it. If they allowed us to check our first bag at no extra cost, there would be no fare increase.
4. “The government says it’s OK.”
If the government were doing its job, that shouldn’t be true. The Transportation Department has the authority to tell the airlines to stop this a la carte fee nonsense. But because of a pro-business attitude among rank-and-file regulators at the DOT, it isn’t going to budge on luggage fees. Even if it means misrepresenting a few facts along the way.
5. “You don’t want to subsidize someone else’s checked bags.”
That’s an argument I hear from a lot of business travelers who travel with just one carry-on bag: If airlines allowed a “free” checked bag, then those of us who carry only one bag would effectively subsidize the airfares of those who check a bag. That’s patently absurd, considering myth #3, and considering the fact that business travelers already pay fares that are an average of four times higher than leisure travelers. Bag or no bag, they’re subsidizing lower leisure fares. Maybe they should be protesting that instead.
(Photo: conallob/Flickr Creative Commons)