Can the government regulate fees for checked baggage? The Transportation Department has a canned answer

By | July 31st, 2009

dotAnd it’s the wrong answer.

In a recent column about luggage, I suggested that a simple rulemaking by the Transportation Department could compel airlines to include one piece of checked luggage as part of the base fare. I recommended that readers write the DOT to let it know they supported such action.

The government was ready with a cookie-cutter response.

Here’s what it sent to the concerned taxpayers who took the time to write.

Thank you for your recent message concerning fees for checked baggage. We can appreciate your interest in this issue.

Congress deregulated air fares a number of years ago. The Department of Transportation has no authority to regulate the prices that airlines charge for air transportation services, including fees for checked bags. Transporting a checked bag costs an airline more than transporting a carry-on bag, and some airlines and individuals feel that passengers who do not check a bag should not be required to share the cost of checked baggage. A similar ‘unbundling” concept for services and prices has appeared for in-flight meals and beverages, and for purchasing a ticket from a reservations agent (as opposed to online).

As indicated above, DOT cannot regulate the amount an airline charges for checked baggage, whether or not those charges are included in the advertised fare, and currently there are no regulations that prohibit airlines from charging separately for checked baggage. However, DOT has taken steps to ensure that consumers are not misled by airlines in the charges they assess for baggage. In this regard, on May 13, 2008, DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office issued detailed guidance to the airline industry designed to ensure that prospective air travelers receive timely and effective notice about charges for checked bags. We also have a rule that prohibits airlines from charging for assistive devices tendered as checked baggage by passengers with disabilities (e.g., a wheelchair or walker).

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

This is such a wrong-headed answer on so many levels, it’s difficult to know where to start.

First of all the Airline Deregulation Act doesn’t deny the DOT all regulatory authority over fares. Rather, the intent of the law is to restrict the government’s authority to disapprove fares on the basis that they are too high or low — in other words, to control prices. It can, and does, tell airlines to stop quoting fares that are misleading or unavailable.

Second, the Transportation Department is using false logic to answer a question. It claims that because airlines are allowed to charge for meals and beverages, that gives them a license to also charge for the first checked bag. But that’s hardly a legally defensible argument. It’s like saying, “We’ve let other crimes go unpunished, so why should we start enforcing the law now?”

Finally, the government contradicts itself in its canned answer. It says it won’t come out with a rulemaking on luggage because it doesn’t have the authority, but then says it does have the authority to prohibit airlines from charging for assistive devices that are checked as luggage.

So is some checked luggage more equal than other luggage to the government?

Truth is, I met with several key people at the Transportation Department earlier this year, and came away with a very different impression. Although they have the authority to tell airlines to stop unbundling their fares, they refuse to use it.

There appears to be a deeply-rooted culture at the DOT that favors big businesses like airlines, mandates a “hands-off” approach to regulation, and is reluctant to stand up for the taxpayers who are funding the department. I believe there are some contrarians within the department who see their role differently.

Maybe it’s time for them to stand up and say something.

(Photo of Transportation Department courtesy of erin m/Flickr Creative Commons)

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