What the #$&! is going on with airline baggage fees?

Check this out: The latest luggage fee numbers, as reported by the federal government, show that the major airlines are collecting less for our checked suitcases. They haven’t returned to the early 2007 levels, which were still pretty reasonable, but well off the highs reached in the second and third quarter of 2010.

What’s going on?

A few theories …

Airlines are not being as strict with their baggage policies. That may be true, but I doubt it. At a time like this, when every airline is pinching pennies, I’m more inclined to believe agents are being rewarded for charging the most luggage fees.

Passengers are traveling lighter. Oh, yeah. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Air travelers are trying to carry more on the plane. That’s my favorite theory. I think passengers are unwilling to shell out more money for their tickets, and are trying to take it all on the plane with them. Pity the flight attendants.

These numbers will almost certainly drop because of the Transportation Department’s new disclosure requirements for baggage fees.

For airlines, it looks as if the gravy train that was baggage fees has left the station.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • Brooklyn

    How long before they raise the fees to make up the shortfall?

  • Tony A.

    Chris, I don’t think you have the correct numbers. You need to compare the same quarter each year since travel has seasonal variations:

    From: http://www.bts.gov/programs/airline_information/baggage_fees/

    Baggage Fees in (000, thousands):
    1Q 2011 783,696
    1Q 2011 768,546
    1Q 2009 577,921
    1Q 2008 122,565
    1Q 2007 104,681

    I don’t see any reduction at all.

  • Susan Fox

    I never check a bag unless I absolutely have no choice, which generally means only on international flights when I’m going to be gone five weeks or so to Mongolia and need very specific clothes and equipment for a variety of activities and weather conditions. I was one of the last ones, I think, to get two bags free for an international flight on United. Seventy bucks apiece from now on, I guess. Time to fly Korean Air or Asiana again.

  • Tony A.

    1Q 2010 768,546

  • Raven_Altosk

    Watching the plane board is a painful process for me. I check my luggage except for my computer bag–the fees are waived because of my status. Anyway, it amazes me to see what people are able to drag on board. This past week I witnessed a very loud, rude, and obviously inexperienced traveler board with a bag that was far too big. (Shame on the gate agents for saying nothing!)

    She boarded toward the end and there wasn’t enough bin space. She just started taking people’s stuff out and saying, “This yours? Hold it.”

    Then, she claimed their bin space until an FA interviened and told her she would need to check her huge bag and that she could not just toss other people’s stuff out. She called the FA a “racist” and got in the FA’s face with a finger and a bunch of attitude. Meanwhile, the flight was held up as they decided whether or not to let her fly.

    They did, but checked her bag. Throughout the whole flight, she kept getting up and marching up and down the aisle (and she was quite a large woman) whining about how her bag better make it or she was going sue. Y’know, because it was a designer suitcase.


    Anyway, the fault here often lies with the gate agents who don’t want to confront these Kitchen Sink Packers and Oversize Bag Haulers. If they’re going to have carry on baggage polices, they need to be enforced!

  • Raven_Altosk

    They already have, and Spirit now charges for carryons.
    I’m waiting for the day they put a credit card machine on the lavatory.

    Better not give them any ideas…

  • Chris, I think status of a flyer may be playing a bit of a role as well. In the past I was more likely to fly out of my alliance if price became a factor. Now I do everything I can (including extra stops) to stay with my preferred alliance, to a) ensure I can check my bags for no fee and b) help preserve my status for the coming year.

    Raven, I don’t disagree with you, however I also feel extreme sympathy for the underpaid gate agents, a who are now to act as police officer to help the airline enforce their money making policies.

    I suspect part of the decline of revenue lies with those gate agents, who generally work with an audience that is largely unhappy.

    If a huge bag makes it past TSA (which is IMHO who should be policing this matter), my guess is the agent will check it for no fee, in order to avoid an incident, and people are cluing in to this.

  • Mo

    Whats going on? if you will check the number of passengers you will see a drop, less people fly now.

  • Brian

    I tend to fly Delta because our first bags are free when we use the Delta credit card.

  • In some airports in Europe (years ago) you couldn’t put your bags on the conveyor belt if they were too big – they just wouldn’t fit in the space allowed.  Perhaps this would help?

  • jim6555

    The primary duty of TSA employees is to keep the commercial aviation system safe from security threats. They should not be distracted by acting as the “bag police” for the airlines. It’s up to each carrier to train its employees to keep passenger’s oversize bags off the aircraft. 

    Whether the gate agents are paid enough to act as police officers is not the issue. It is part of their job description to be aware of the rules regarding what can be carried on board and to prevent passengers from breaking those rules.

  • Chrisntim

    I would be curious about the number of status flers vs non-status flers on any given flight. Then look at checked bags vs carryons. Most of my flights are with just carryons, but every once in a while (last week for example) i had back to back trips to SLC then to EWR (New York) where i checked bags both trips. It seems to me that most of the flyers are FFs, but that is an impression only

  • I definitely see more baggage on flights. It’s very frustrating for me as a passenger as there’s often no room for my bags in the overhead compartments near my seat unless I’m one of the first to board. I certainly bring more carry-ons myself unless I have no choice but to travel with a suitcase (some work stuff requires it). It’s hell for the flight attendants I’m sure but also hell for passengers.

  • Christophe

    Many reasons you don’t cite in your theories :
    Frequent flyer statusCo-branded credit card giving free checked bagsIncrease in “armed forces” allowances (cf your previous posts about Delta)
    Cost of flying for leisure being up, less travel (and it’s usually not the business traveler who carries a lot of checked bags !)

  • cjr001

    The thing is those overhead bins can hold a lot.

    I’ve carried on board a rather large, duffel-bag sized backpack several times. It was no wider than other bags. And while of greater height, it fit length-wise in the overhead bin no problem.

    What I’ve found to be the real problem with overhead bins is that too many people put bags and purses and other garbage up there when they never attempt to put such things under the seats where they would fit. Where they should be putting them in the first place.

  • sirwired

    Chris, I don’t know where you get your statement that you are “inclined to believe” that gate agents get rewarded for collecting bag fees.

    Given what gate agents let on-board, I’d say that that isn’t true at all.

  • I was charting the major airlines. When you factor in the “discount” carriers, the number stays high.

  • Not gate agents, ticket agents. I’ve seen the memos.

  • frostysnowman

    Or a quarter slot in the arm rest to recline your seat…

  • sirwired

    Whoops!  My apologies; I thought the original story said gate agents.

  • No, I should be apologizing to you. The original story said gate agents when it should have said ticket agents. I fixed it. Thanks for pointing out the problem.

  • Linda Bator

    AMEN!   We flew to Athens last year, and a last minute Lucy thought he could take my sister’s bag out and put his daughter’s in instead.  Tried to tell my sister to put it under her seat, since he didn’t want to see his daughter inconvenienced.  Took an FA to straighten him out.  (The reason not to inconvenience her was the 3 bags EACH both his daughters brought on board that WOULD not fit under the seat by any stretch of the imagination!)

  • Tony A.

    The Baggage Fee (revenue) increases from Alaska, Spirit, American, and AirTran  MORE THAN OFFSET the drop from Delta and United & Continental.

    Note: I am *not* making the conclusion that Delta and UA/CO passengers simply switched carriers. There is no data to prove that.

    1Q Baggage Fees Compared (in 000s, Thousands)

    2011- 197,971  (-19,802)
    2010- 217,773
    2009- 102,838 + NW 59,786
    2008-  26,571 + NW  9,641
    2007-  20,343 + NW  8,339

    2011- 137,210    (+8,671)
    2010- 128,539    
    2009- 108,117
    2008-  32,959
    2007-  28,829

    US Airways:
    2011- 120,925
    2010- 120,720
    2009-  94,227
    2008-   7,478
    2007-   5,002

    Continental & United Combined:
    2011- CO 76,304 + UA 66,245 = 142,549  (-5,199)
    2010- CO 76,603 + UA 71,145 = 147,748
    2009- CO 55,616 + UA 59,102
    2008- CO 10,696 + UA 12,219
    2007- CO 10,715 + UA 12,045

    2011- 39,267    (+4,262)
    2010- 35,005    
    2009- 30,881

    2011- 36,201    (+15,035)
    2010- 21,166
    2009-  5,390

    2011- 28,226    (+12,193)
    2010- 16,033
    2009- n/a

  • Dave

    Besides, bag policy is not uniform across the airlines (the number of bags is now the subject of an FAR, but not the specific size).  The security circus takes long enough now; we don’t need to add time for TSA to figure out the rules for the traveler’s particular airline.

  • Mark K

    More co-branded credit cards allow for free checked bags now.  Since the cards don’t equate to status, I think a lot more people who fly often but less often than frequent fliers are getting the cards so they don’t pay for at least 1 checked bag.  I guess the airlines have been convinced they will make more money off the agreement with the card issuer than the bag fees.

    I also believe that people are dragging even more onto the plane and are getting better at packing a lot into small bags so they don’t have to check anything.  And the gate agents are so overworked that they don’t have time to check every carry on for size.  I see things that are being brought on the plane that I would never think of as a carry on item.  Just yesterday, a guy on my flight brought on a folding suit bag.  It was 3 – 4 times larger than an average carry on bag and took up an entire overhead bin.  The flight attendant wanted to check it, but the guy pulled out a printout that stated folding suit bags were always allowed as carry on luggage and suggested that since he was on before the others, the late arriving passengers would have to check their bags because she “should know who I am and how much money I spend every year on this airline.”  If he really flew that much he would have been upgraded to 1st. 

  • flutiefan

    Monica isn’t wrong about us gate agents. but it doesn’t have to do with our pay…it has to do with our management being unwilling to back us up when the passenger complains about being told their bag is too big and must be checked!  WE get scolded for causing the passenger to be inconvenienced! all so the manager can avoid a bad letter being sent and counted against their numbers!

  • flutiefan

    they’ve actually had this at a few airports over the years (PHL did in the E terminal for awhile in 2004-2005). it was wonderful.  the TSA would simply say their bag didn’t fit and they must return to their airline’s ticket counter and check it. problem solved. 

    However, the TSA decided they didn’t like that part so they removed the “templates” that limited the size on the conveyor.  it’s THEIR rule (FAA’s) that the passenger can only have 1 carry-on that fits in the overhead, plus 1 personal item.  why can’t they be expected to enforce those limits???

  • flutiefan

    dang, i wish my employer gave bonuses and incentives for such a thing. as a rule, they are totally against that.

  • Carrie Charney

    Not necessarily. Some flights are made up of so many status fliers, that there are way more of them than seats up front.

  • Charles B

    I want a quarter slot on my seat to prevent the seat in front of me from reclining into my face.

  • Mark K

    24 seats up front on this flight.  I got upgraded and I am no where near the top of upgrade status.  There were 40 additional people on the list waiting for a seat upgrade, so maybe I just made it over him.  But in this case, it sounded more like someone who thinks he is more valuable to the airline than he is.

  • avid, but concerned, reader

    While it is very useful and interesting to see the data in graph form (and I agree with your opinion about the rise in carryon usage), the positioning of the graph mis-represents the data.  If you look carefuly at the graph as it appears in the article, all of the horizontal lines are slanted upwards, creating the illusion that the earlier revenues from bag fees were slightly less than they should be, and the later revenue figures were slightly more.  (I know, its a bit nit-picky, however, I would hope that, in a consumer advocate column which occasionally criticizes airlines that fudge data, the data posted by the advocate is presented fairly.)

  • Too Late MOL already thought of that.

  • It appears the airlines are not fully capitalising on their baggage fees. In principle any bag that rides in the hold is subject to the fee; that makes all oversize carry ons off loaded at boarding and redelivered at arrival by the aircraft door the equivalent of a checked bag. These days Ground staff are tagging these bags at the gate I wonder how long it will be before they tag it and charge.

  • I don’t understand it either and also don’t know why flight attendants allow people to bring full sized luggage to the plain and then put a yellow tag on it so it has to be put in the cargo hold and not pay for checked bags. My mom gets so upset when this happens because she checks bags half the size of what people don’t check.

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