Airline Baggage Charges: It's Customer Abuse

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JB Reed / Bloomberg News / Getty

A passenger walks through the Delta terminal at JFK Airport in New York City

It is my fervent wish that the airline industry, particularly the legacy carriers, becomes abundantly profitable in the not-too-distant future. It is the industry's wish too, I dare say. The problem, as ever, is the manner in which the airlines hope to attain this elusive status — by once again sticking it to the customer. This week's chapter involves a move by Delta, quickly copied by Continental, to raise fees for bags checked at the airport to $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second. (It's $2 less if you check in online.)

Say you're flying to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from Newark, N.J., next month, and you've nailed a $191 plus tax round-trip flight on Continental. Sweet. If you're traveling solo and light, a carry-on will do the trick. But if you're not, once you check in a bag, you are adding 13% to the ticket cost; 31% if you add a second bag. If you can't use a carry-on, you essentially become the victim of a bait and switch tactic, since the airlines never name their baggage fees in the fare quotes you get on Travelocity, Expedia and other travel sites.

Faced with these after-the-fact fare hikes, it's no wonder that people get ticked off and drag everything they own onto the plane: laptops, briefcases, suitcases, knapsacks, duffel bags, shopping bags, body bags, guitars, plants, animals, minerals and vegetables. And those are just the first 12 passengers to board. The airlines board people either by rows, back-to-front or according to an algorithm that is devised to spread people and their stuff around the plane in an orderly manner. Except that an algorithm has never rushed the gate the moment a flight is called, because if it were to, I'd throw an elbow. Whatever the sequence, loading the overhead bins on a fully booked airliner is like trying to pull one of your socks over your head while someone else whacks you with a sack of flour.

Presumably, the airlines don't mind because the change means they need fewer ramp personnel, and now they get paid every time they do handle your bag. In reality, it's the airline flight crews who are now doing the baggage handling, for no extra wages — and don't they enjoy it.

Giving some passengers a disincentive to check their bags makes the experience worse for everyone, even the people who paid the fees to check their bags. I admit, I don't like dragging a suitcase around a cramped jet. I prefer to check mine if I have enough time. But I still have to find a spot for a laptop case and coat, and I still risk getting beaned by falling valises or smacked by baggage that's being hauled down the aisle by overloaded, exhausted, ill-tempered passengers.

The logic to charging for bags is that by disaggregating airline pricing, the carriers can collect fees for added services. That's why you are seeing fees for things like exit-row seats or extra-room seats. That makes perfect sense: a better seat equals a higher price. But making us all suffer so the carriers can milk a baggage fee from a few makes no sense, even if it does make some dollars.

Delta, which was once the model of civility in this industry, has lately made noises about regaining some of that lost élan, but antagonizing your passengers doesn't seem like the way to do it. Continental should know better. If it's as good an airline as it keeps saying it is, customers should be willing to pay more for the privilege. Give yourself a raise, Continental, if you think you've earned it.

Clearly, some rivals don't. Southwest Airlines has mocked the majors in a series of advertisements that point out its own free checked-baggage service. JetBlue did likewise in a recent ad, offering a faux travel product to non-JetBlue flyers, the Extrago Sherpa Shirt, which "can hold an entire trip's worth of necessities, including the $20 bill you'll save by not checking a bag."

Funny, aren't Southwest and JetBlue among the better performers? They are not always the cheapest, mile for mile, but customers of these carriers find value in the whole travel experience, not just the price. People will pay money for performance. It's a lesson the legacy guys never seem to get.