Airline Bag Fees: As High as the Cost of a Seat?

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Darren Whiteside / Reuters

Ground crew wait next to a Thai Airways flight to Sydney at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, the first international flight to depart after a week long antigovernment protest paralyzed air travel on Dec. 3, 2008

We all know that flying with bags these days can cost you extra, but who knew how expensive it could get? One unlucky traveler got hit with an excess-baggage charge so outrageous, he may as well have bought his luggage its own seats on the flight.

Offending Party: Thai Airways

What's at Stake: Hold onto your wallets, people: an overweight-bag charge of $2,200!

The Complaint: Bob Wolfe and his wife were flying from Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport to Panama. At the counter, Wolfe was told that his four bags were each about 2 kg or 3 kg over the 32 kg limit, and that he'd have to pay a penalty.

Wolfe was sent to a Thai Airways office where he says a number of employees discussed how much he should be charged for the bags. They argued with each other. They made phone calls. They looked generally confused, he says. More than an hour later, a verdict was rendered: Wolfe owed 66,000 Thai baht, or approximately $2,200.

Anxious to catch his plane, Wolfe reluctantly coughed up the penalty, vowing to take up the case when he returned home. After exchanging numerous letters and e-mails with representatives of the airline, Wolfe is still unsure why he was charged so much, or how the confused employees arrived at the 66,000 baht figure. He says he has tried in vain to get an explanation or a partial refund on the bag charge.

The Outcome: Just for fun, the Avenger looked up where a person could fly for $2,200 from his home base in New York City — with or without bags. Hey, look! Auckland, New Zealand! Jakarta, Indonesia! Beijing, China — twice!

The Avenger contacted Thai Airways, and a rep provided the same letter that had been sent to Wolfe. It read, in part, "Any bag or piece which exceeds 32 kilos shall be charged at three times the applicable excess-baggage" charge of 5,500 baht. Huh?

There was no explanation of why Wolfe's bags were charged "three times" the regular excess-baggage penalty. Were they three times as heavy? Three times as ugly?

After a few weeks, the airline finally provided its overweight-baggage policy in writing. The explanation was that Wolfe was charged three times the normal fee because his bags were overweight and oversize. The policy, while confusingly written, seems to say that bags over 32 kg with total dimensions of more than 80 in. would get socked with a triple penalty.

Fine, except that Wolfe insists no Thai Airways employee ever measured his bags. So the Avenger had Wolfe do it, then sent photographs to the airline of the bags next to a tape measure. The first two bags each totaled 60 in., while the second two totaled 67 in. each. All four were under the 80-in. limit, and should therefore have not been charged the triple penalty.

The Avenger first contacted Thai Airways in August. It's now November, and the airline is still asking for more time to sort this out. Meanwhile, Wolfe remains confused as to exactly what he should have been charged.

If there's a lesson here, it's this: If an airline is going to hit you with an overweight-bag fee, ask to see its policy in writing and make sure airline representatives measure and weigh your bags in front of you. Oh, and if you're traveling to Thailand, pack light.

Got an awful travel gripe? The Avenger may be able to sort it out for you.