“You will be charged $25 per bag on your return flight”

I never meant to openly challenge American Airlines’ indefensible policy of charging those who can least afford it – budget-conscious leisure travelers – for the first checked bag. I had no intention of making a scene when I boarded a flight to Dallas with my family this morning.

But sometimes, these things can’t be avoided.

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We were traveling with one carry-on bag per person. But three members of our party were kids, so it looked as if we were trying to pull a fast one, hauling everything but the kitchen sink on board. Also, the luggage template they forced us to squeeze our bags into looked as if it could barely fit a pocketbook. (Is it my imagination, or are those templates getting smaller?)

The agent reluctantly gate-checked four of our bags to our final destination without charging us. But not before subjecting us to a humiliating dress-down in front of the other passengers.

“Just a reminder,” she said on the PA, as we frantically tried to repack some of our bags. “You are limited to one-carry on bag and a personal item. Anything else will have to be checked …”

All she needed was a spotlight. I felt like taking a bow and saying, “We’ll be here again next week! Come back and see us!”

Bringing too much luggage on board is a proven but controversial strategy for avoiding luggage fees. Except that we had no intention of playing the system. If anything, we were singled out for being inefficient packers and traveling with young kids.

So here I am, sitting in seat 30D with the roar of an MD-80 engine in my right ear and a gate agent’s words still resonating in my left: “You will be charged $25 per bag on your return flight.”

I took it as a threat at the time, but in retrospect, the agents probably see this every day, and their anger is directed at their employer who introduced the pay-for-the-first-bag rule two years ago – a policy decision that brought tens of millions of dollars in much-needed revenue to American Airlines.

I don’t have a problem with unbundling – the act of removing components of an airline ticket — in principle. But as I mentioned in a previous column, there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way. American’s decision to “upsell” us on luggage is wrong; Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who introduced the Clear Airfares Act last year, has the right idea.

Airlines ought to be required by law to quote a price that includes essential components, such as the ability to check a bag, and allow passengers to opt out, rather than trying to upsell customers on something they assume will be part of the ticket. Anything else is dishonest.

I accept the blame for being a bad packer. But should American have stopped us because we were traveling with a three-year-old, a five-year-old and a seven-year-old, and it just looked as if we were flouting the rules? I think you know the answer to that question.

On our return trip next week, I’ll make sure everything fits in the Lilliputian luggage template. If American insists on charging us an extra $100 for our bags, you’ll read about it here first.

(Photo: Robert Crum/Flickr Creative Commons)