Spirit Airlines to charge for carry-on bags

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By Christopher Elliott

Calling it the “next phase” of unbundling, Spirit Airlines a few hours ago announced that it would begin charging passengers for carry-on luggage. Seriously.

From the release:

In order to continue reducing fares even further and offering customers the option of paying only for the services they want and use rather than subsidizing the choices of others, the low fare industry innovator is … progressing to the next phase of unbundling with the introduction of a charge to carry on a bag and be boarded first onto the airplane.

The fee applies to carry-ons placed in overhead bins; personal items that fit under the seat are still free. With this move, Spirit becomes the first American airline to charge for carry-on bags.

Spirit’s actions are likely to restart the debate over what’s included in your airline ticket, a subject I discussed at length in last Sunday’s Washington Post column. So far, the government has taken a “hands-off” approach, refusing to tell airlines what services they must offer.

But has Spirit gone too far?

The press release cleverly spins the issue by saying the airline has reduced some of its bag fees and fares. Members of Spirit’s $9 Fare Club who pre-reserve their carry-on bag in advance online receive a $10 discount, compared to non-members and pay only $20 for their carry-on, according to the airline. In addition, checked bag fees for $9 Fare Club members are being cut to $15 for domestic flights and $20 for international flights, both a $10 savings compared to non-members, says the airline.

The new prices will be available for purchase by July 1, 2010, for travel August 1, 2010 and beyond.

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Spirit’s Chief Operating Officer Ken McKenzie offered this explanation:

In addition to lowering fares even further, this will reduce the number of carry-on bags, which will improve inflight safety and efficiency by speeding up the boarding and deplaning process, all of which ultimately improve the overall customer experience. Bring less; pay less. It’s simple.

McKenzie is suggesting that passengers asked for these changes. That’s nonsense. I don’t know of anyone who wanted to pay for a carry-on bag. What’s worse, I hear echoes of this when I speak with people at the Transportation Department: You should only have to pay for what you use. (Here’s how to buy the best luggage for your next trip.)

How far can they take that line of reasoning? All the way to the pay toilets? (Related: What’s wrong with air travel.)

I’m not the only one who has a problem with this new pricing scheme. My colleague Jared Blank of the blog Online Travel Review suggests Spirit is lying to its customers:

My problem is that you no longer know how much the trip is going to cost. And that is deceptive. It’s only a matter of time (I hope) before the FTC steps in and puts an end to this, because Spirit has gone where I feared some airline would go: you can advertise the fare as being free, when the trip actually costs $140. Maybe I should just blame the FTC for allowing it to get to this point in the first place.

It’s really too bad. Spirit used to be a great little carrier, as I’ve noted in the past. It has some terrific employees.

But this is just outrageous.

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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.

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