Passengers say they miss luggage-inclusive fares the most

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By Christopher Elliott

It’s been more than two years since most major airlines “unbundled” their fares and began charging passengers for the first checked bag. And although air travelers are now paying more for their luggage than ever — $2.7 billion last year, compared with just $1.1 billion in 2008 — they are deeply unhappy about it, according to a new poll.

A survey of more than 1,000 travelers by the Consumer Travel Alliance suggests air travelers are more upset about the checked luggage charges than any other airline fee. Asked what they missed the most about air travel, 56 percent said it was the ability to check their first bag without paying extra. Roughly 20 percent said they missed meals, and slightly fewer — 19 percent — missed the ability to make a confirmed seat reservation. About five percent of respondents missed the free pillows and blankets.

“It’s almost impossible for the casual traveler to go without luggage, or even the road warriors who have to stay over several nights,” says Robin Edelston, a frequent traveler from Cos Cob, Conn. “And charging for checked luggage encourages people to cram stuff into the overhead bins when the airlines should be encouraging people to stow it in cargo.”

Airlines have used these and other surcharges, such as ticket change fees, to return to profitability. Last week, for example, US Airways president Scott Kirby said his airline expects to bring in $500 million in so-called “ancillary” fees this year, recording a net profit of between $450 million to $475 million.

“A la carte revenues represent 100 percent of that profitability,” he said.

Dishonest fees and passenger grievances

Passengers know the fees are an important source of revenue. But it doesn’t seem to matter.

“It’s good for the airlines because they are picking up a lot of money in fees,” says Tab Stone, a pediatrician from Los Angeles. “It’s akin to the lyrics in the old Tom Lehrer song, ‘Now there is a fee for what she used to give away for free.’ However, it’s detrimental for passengers who feel taken advantage of, having to pay for everything separately and dealing with varying rules and fees across airlines, along with waivers of some fees tied to specific credit cards, higher-level frequent flyer status, or flying in a slightly higher class of service, among other factors.”

One reason airline passengers find luggage fees problematic is the perception that the fees are being charged in a dishonest way. Airlines suggested the change would be a temporary measure to offset higher fuel prices when they added the fees. But the fees stayed, even when fuel costs dropped.

Travelers are used to their bags flying with them at no additional cost, and that becomes a challenge when they’re fare shopping.

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Calls for federal regulation to reveal full ticket costs

“The problem is, there’s no comparison point,” says Mitchell Weinstock, an air traveler from San Jose, Calif. “As long as the airlines never present what the full ticket cost is at the time of sale, compared to the unbundled price, it is nothing more than a unsubstantiated claim that these parts would add up to the whole bundled price, or the bundled price may have been a better deal. They can change the price on any of the elements and you have no idea if they are telling you anything useful.”

A proposed federal regulation would change that. The government is considering requiring airlines to quote a “full” fare, including all mandatory charges, as well as quoting that full fare plus the cost of bag charges that traditionally were included in the price of the ticket. If the rule takes effect early next year, it might effectively end fliers’ frustration with baggage fees.

One thing the federal government can’t regulate, because it is impossible to quantify, is airline service. Beyond baggage problems, that was what air travelers say they missed more than anything.

“I miss the courtesy and helpfulness of the airline staff,” says Lee Bice, an IT director from Tampa. “Where once travel was a pleasure, it feels like a minefield. Too many attendants give off an air of irritation and I feel we may be imposing on them.”

The vanishing joy and rising frustrations

Christine Austin, a bookkeeper from Louisville, Ky., expresses dread about boarding a plane due to the removal of so many elements from the air travel experience. (Related: Hidden airline fees are everywhere – and they’re about to get worse!)

She says, “The experience has had all the joy and thrill of flying sucked out of it.” “Every part of flying has become a hassle from making the reservation, to packing, to getting through security, to cattle herding onto the plane, having to stay in your seat virtually the entire time, and hope your bags have made it to your destination.”

Travelers say it can’t continue like this. (Here’s the best travel advice.)

“The devious ways of hiding the true cost of flying is not acceptable in any other industry,” says Bob Rosenberg, a salesman from New Fairfield, Conn., adding that a government crackdown is inevitable, at some point.

“I think that the airlines are the worst-managed industry that we have in America,” he adds.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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