Are fees for carry-on luggage just the beginning?

Would you like a ticket with your fee?

Since Allegiant Air’s decision to start charging passengers for carry-on luggage last week, you’d think that everything needed to be said about this outrageous new fee had already been said.

Maybe not.

Just in case you missed it, Allegiant began charging for carry-ons April 4, billing passengers $35 for each bag they brought on the plane. It joins Spirit Airlines, which introduced fees for carry-ons in 2010.

Allegiant didn’t bother making a public announcement or even justifying the fee, and the ease with which the surcharge was accepted by the flying public will probably have other airline execs thinking, “Hey, why don’t we do that?”

Air travelers are unhappy, of course. No one wants to pay yet another fee, and especially one that can only be avoided by traveling luggage-less. I asked Jim Daniel, one of my regular readers, for a reaction. He simply said, “I hate flying.”

Let’s not dwell on the present, but the future. Allegiant is a small carrier and so is Spirit, and we still have a choice in airlines. I mean, if we want a bag included in our fare (please don’t call it a “free” bag, because nothing is free) we can still fly on Southwest or JetBlue.

And for now, at least, the “legacy” airlines aren’t charging to carry on luggage, allowing passengers to bring their XL suitcases on board to get around their luggage fees. That’s absurd in its own way.

It took 20 months for the contagion of carry-on fees to spread from Spirit to Allegiant. How long will it take to jump to a bigger airline — say, US Airways? Also, what kind of new fees will airlines come up with to boost their all-important “ancillary” revenues?

We can see glimpses of the future right now, in airlines like Ryanair, the highly profitable and fee-obsessed Irish carrier.

RyanAir has a few fees you’ve probably never heard of. They include an “administration fee” for paying by credit card, a priority boarding fee, a reserved seating fee, a boarding card fee, and an online check-in fee. How do I know this? RyanAir’s own site publishes a handy guide to avoiding its own fees, which apparently looks a lot easier than it actually is, because the airline makes buckets of money from these charges.

Spirit and Allegiant are doing their best to copy Ryanair, but they’ve also come up with a few innovations of their own. The most notable is Spirit’s $9 fare club, a clever scheme that offers special reduced fares in exchange for an annual fee that’s considerably higher than $9. Worse, the membership auto-renews whether you want to or not. Think of it as your airline offering a “free” credit report.

The true innovators are the ones that are able to change an entire industry forever. When American Airlines began charging for the first checked bag several years ago, the rest of the major airlines followed quickly. Although American is now in bankruptcy, it hasn’t given up its search for new fees. I believe the sharpest minds in the ancillary fee world work at American, and the changes we’ll see — and we will probably see them soon — will surprise even the seasoned air traveler.

Airlines like American are developing sophisticated new technologies that deliver a more “personalized” flying experience, and that personalization also applies to the fees you’ll pay. Instead of a “one size fits all” fare, it might offer you one price, with certain markups and optional fees; and it might offer me a different fare with different fees.

It’s like the shopkeeper selling trinkets at the old Middle Eastern bazaar — “for you, special price!” — scaled up. Brilliant, isn’t it?

If an airline as innovative and unafraid of alienating its customers as American gets acquired by an airline as opportunistic and unafraid of alienating its customers as US Airways, there’s no telling what kind of fees are in our future. But I’m pretty certain about one thing: It would get really complicated really soon.

Maybe we’ll look back on stories like Allegiant’s carry-on fee announcement with nostalgia someday. Ah, remember when airline tickets were still simple?


  • Frank

    Everything needed to be said on this issue???  You beat these issues to death.  That’s why this site exists.  A few years ago, it was fuel surcharges.  Anyway, I find it ironic that you bring up the fact that American Airlines is in bankruptcy and charges for checked baggage.  Well, let me see.  It gained millions and millions of dollars in revenue from this service, yet, still LOST so much money that it’s in bankruptcy, TRYING TO ROB everything from Pensions to PAY to Benefits from it’s workers.  You think the customers are the victims of De-regulation?  Hardly!!!! 
    And, bother way, it’s NEVER had a one size fits all, airfare.  What’s amazing is, during a recession, you usually lose a major airline/multiple national ones. These fees are necessary to keep these airlines afloat, generating revenue, afterall they’re a BUSINESS. 

  • Trudy Richardson

    They started by ripping off Travel Agents and making us pay them to work for them and when they got by with that one they started on the General Sheep population.  They are writing their own doomsday scenario.  As an agent we warned about frequent flyer miles that would come home to haunt them.  Where do you think those fees they have added come from? They come from giving away the ship with the frequent flyers.  Agents also fought deregulation and said the fares would go insane and guess what they did.

    Now their service (what service?) is so bad that passengers dread flying and many won’t go places that take over 2 air hours because they are so miserable when they fly the friendly skies.  I can still remember when people looked forward to an air trip because I was one of them.  The only reason to fly now is because your really have to be there or because it is a destination you really want to visit.

    The airlines have seriously damaged their best allies, the Travel Agents; are they going to stop the traveling public all together?  There lies their DOOM.

  • BobChi

    Spirit and Allegiant have a particular business model. As long as they’re upfront about what they’re doing (looks like Allegiant wasn’t as honest as it should have been), it’s their decision to do it, and the flyer’s decision whether or not to do business with them. A fee that is avoidable is one thing; a fee that is not avoidable should be legally required to be included in the quoted price. I detest much more Allegiant’s so-called “convenience fee” for booking online. It is actually cheaper for them if customers book online rather than dealing with an agent at the airport. This is simply false advertising of their fares.

  • Michelle

    While Ryanair is fee crazy, I can a “fare” of .01Euro.  So even with the fees, the real fare is still reasonable.  I do not see the American domestic/legacy airlines doing this.  The “fare” will still be high with added fees on top of that fare; and generally bad customer service to go with it.