Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Fight Over Carry-on Bag Fees

Airlines need to make money, especially in a deep recession, so they can keep flying. Air travelers need to save money, especially in a deep recession, so they can keep traveling. That is the crux of the battle over fees that commercial airlines in the United States have been charging on top of their basic air fares for the past five years.

The cause of the commotion right now is the fee for carry-on bags - ranging from $30 up to $45 at the departure gate - that Florida-based Spirit Airlines has announced. The fee is set to go into effect on August 1. So far, no other U.S. airline has followed Spirit's example, but we may assume they are watching to see if this will fly. An enhanced revenue stream would, of course, be good for money-losing airlines, and fees have become important sources of revenue for carriers.

Understandably, the new fee is drawing anger and frustration from travelers, who have been hit with fees for seats with extra legroom, fees for food, fees for heavy bags and fees for even the first checked bag - now this. But those same travelers, motivated by the understandable desire to economize, have pushed back when airlines have attempted to raise air fares, thus requiring them to dream up other ways to make money. So, it's a perfect circle - and a perfect mess.

Spirit Airlines' president and CEO, Ben Baldanzas, defends the carry-on fee by arguing that people try to tote so much stuff on board, they slow down boarding and deplaning. He also says that his airline is lowering fares by more money than it plans to charge for carry-ons - a claim that as far as I know has not been independently confirmed. The new move "is designed to relieve the carry-on crisis, saving you time and money ... Everyone Wins!'' Spirit exults in a statement. Well, that's one way of looking at it.

Predictably, the matter has inflamed the always-flamable blogosphere. And predictably, the issue has become politicized. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) calls the carry-on fee "a slap in the face to travelers.'' He is calling on the U.S. Department of Transportation to outlaw it. The fee appears to be legal, however, and Schumer's move feels just a bit like grandstanding. Friend of the Little Guy. The Traveler's Pal.

In any case, it isn't clear how rescinding this admittedly not-so-welcome fee would help resolve - if not the exaggerated "carry-on crisis'' - the very real revenue crisis now hammering airlines.

Me, I resolved long ago to avoid the long airport wait-times and hassle of, uhm, lugging around luggage. I only take what I can carry on-board the airplane, even on long international trips. I travel light. The idea that I might have to pay a fee to do this in future does not inspire, and it doesn't make me want to make my first-ever trip on Spirit Airlines.

In short, this may be a story with no Hollywood ending. But that's how we live now in the world of travel.

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