Are airlines charging the wrong baggage fees?


At this point, with a few exceptions, fees for checked luggage are pretty ubiquitous. And, passengers are resigned to paying them. From a traveler and travel agent perspective, however, I think they’re charging fees for the wrong baggage.

With a simple change, airlines would probably get the same revenue and have more on-time departures.

Here’s the suggestion — make the first checked bag free, but charge for any bag that has to fit into the overhead bin.

Since travelers will probably still bring the same amount of stuff, the airlines would presumably get the same amount of fees.

But, if more people have checked their bags, that means less of them who need to stow them overhead. Any frequent flier knows, nothing slows down a boarding line than the whole stop, try to put a bag overhead, maybe forget something in the bag, take it out, try to put the bag in again, turn it a bit to make it fit, etc. routine.

Because the baggage cut-off for checked bags is earlier than the regular check-in time, this also puts the burden on travelers to check in earlier, which doesn’t cost the airlines a dime.

Frequently the airlines end up checking bags for free and having delays anyway. On a recent flight from San Francisco to JFK, the plane was slightly delayed from the start, and the gate agents over and over called for volunteers to check their luggage, “free of charge to your final destination,” and warned that people in the later boarding groups would probably not find room.

Now, if someone’s gone to the trouble of packing a size-appropriate carry-on, limiting their liquids and gels and dealing with the bag through TSA lines and in the terminal, by the time they’re at the gate, the idea of waiting heaven knows how long for a checked bag just isn’t that appealing. Naturally, the airline didn’t get a lot of takers.

(Side note to any airline person reading this: if you want volunteers for checked bags, offer a token inducement — drink coupons or a free bag on their NEXT flight.)

So, of course, boarding took a good 40 minutes as passengers backed up in the Jetaway while others played musical overheads with bags. In the end, the airline had to wait to close the doors as at least a half dozen people couldn’t find space and the bags had to be brought to the front of the plane to be checked after all.

Again, if people knew up front they could check one bag and avoid all the hassle, my guess is that a lot more of them would do it, especially if it were the bag overhead that resulted in a service fee.

Plus, because of limited overhead bin room, another problem this change could fix is the need to line up well in advance to board first within a boarding group. This adds to the stress level all around the boarding area for both business travelers and families alike because they can’t just sit until their group is called.

Of course, airlines being airlines and since money talks, they would probably waive fees for elite level frequent fliers, first class passengers and perhaps branded credit card holders. But, it would still speed up the boarding process and mean fewer delayed flights.

What do you think, Consumer Traveler readers? My sense — it couldn’t make the whole baggage and boarding mess much worse.

  • Bob Stocking

    I think this is a great idea, but I thought Spirit had tried it and was panned for it. Another possible advantage of this strategy: reduced stress levels in the gate area. The scrums form as soon as the agent starts the boarding announcement because everyone’s worried that there won’t be room for their bag.

  • Lostbags

    You miss the point. The problem with checking bags is not so much the fee … As the interminable wait, the mis-routed bag, the damaged bag, the broken-into bag, the stolen bag … Tell me how this idea would do anything to prevent that.

  • Joel Wechsler

    Excellent idea, Janice. There is nothing more aggravating than reaching your seat after a long wait and finding that someone in the back has put their carryon where you want to put your own. Flight attendants seem powerless to do anything about this and have no interest in trying.

  • Pingback: I think the free bag idea is backward … | Consideration()

  • DCTravelAgent

    I have been saying this for about 3 years now!!!

  • DCTA

    I think Spirit was charging for checked AND carry-on!

  • DCTA

    People do lose bags, but the vast, VAST majority do not. I fly very frequently and almost always check a bag – have never lost a bag, had a bag damaged (okay, once but that was a hotel employee not airline), never seen any evidence of a bag broken into, and ONCE found TSA note in my bag that they had opened it. It just doesn’t happen that often, though I have to say that it seems to happen over and over again to the same people!

  • Lostbags

    You’re beating the odds; you should buy a lottery ticket.

  • William Beem

    Another article from someone who wants to charge people who do something different than their own method. For photographers and other folks who carry expensive and delicate gear, checked baggage is just not an option. Sure, there are plenty of people who stuff too much in the overhead, but you’re not going to find a resolution that fits every case.

  • Stephen0118

    I don’t think it’s fair to someone who travels only for the weekend and don’t need a suitcase that has to be checked. I’m one of those people. I fly to Vegas once a year (sometimes twice) and it’s usually flying out Friday afternoon, coming home Sunday. I don’t need a suitcase. I just bring enough clothes for the weekend and I just carry a duffel bag or a rollaboard. Those won’t fit under my seat. I can just grab it, head down to pick up my rental car and head to the hotel.

    What I don’t like (but put up with) is someone who puts his/her suitcase in Row 3 but sit in row 25, taking away the overhead space for the latecomers who sit in row 3/4.

  • charlieo

    Amazing. I’ve been making this suggestion for a couple of years now, I’m really happy to read that someone else has a similar idea, now if we could only get the airlines to listen. I have sent a number of emails to Continental and now United. My suggestion was that anything that couldn’t fit under the seat and required the overhead should be charged. I believe that fewer bags would find their way on to the plane and the added benefit would be much quicker boarding. I also made the suggestion that EVERYONE pay for on-board stowed luggage – – regardless of status.

    Let’s face it, today the airlines can do ANYTHING they want and the consumer just keeps sucking it up. Obviously most consumers are not complaining enough. When I complained about my silver elite status losing value (let me say here that I pay for all my flights and really personally earn my status) the customer agent I spoke with said “more people need to voice their dissatisfaction to the airline, then things will be done”; I know I am one of a few (relative term) that actually complain in writing to the airline when I’m unhappy.

    note: yes, I also write when I am happy or have had (unusual) good service.

  • charlieo

    The perfect solution – ship it ~

  • BobChi

    I like getting off the plane and being on my way. My home airport is notorious for having planes from several airlines arrive at about the same and it takes a long time to get the bags afterwards.

  • pauletteb

    Great idea! Everything I absolutely need to keep with me is in my carry-on that fits under the seat in front of me, so I don’t use the overheads anyway.

  • William Beem

    How is that perfect? It would cost as much or more to ship it, there would be a longer delay in transit, and you still run the risk of some ape tossing it around like a bouncy-ball.

  • Deb

    Janice, I have been saying the EXACT same thing since the airlines starting charging for bags! Flights would mostly all leave on time if this were the case. Flight attendants would not be looking for space to cram that last passengers bag into… and passengers that did pay would have room for their bags….It is all backwards…

  • Lisa

    I wish they would assign the overhead space to each seat. You have one slot to put your bag. If it doesn’t fit, you have to gate check it (at a cost). No one else can put their bag in the slot designated for your seat.
    That would eliminate the folks who bring far too much onboard. It would also prevent people from putting their bag in row 4 when they sit in row 25. (That really annoys me, especially when I’m the one in row 4 who now has nowhere to put my bag.)

  • Carol Baker

    As one of those who always uses carryon because I don’t like waiting at the end of a flight or finding out the bag didn’t make it, obviously I don’t like the idea. But I would undoubtedly pay the fee if I had to.

  • lairdb

    I’m willing to trade — but not willing to give up value for nothing in return. I would be completely in favor of paying for overhead space — if the deal included a guarantee of timely delivery of the checked bag.

    (Having said that, I’m somewhat in favor of paying for overhead space just to keep all the stuff that should be under-seat out of there — if you didn’t buy an overhead tag for it, it doesn’t go up there.)

  • MeanMeosh

    I’ve seen variations of what you’re suggesting in several other places over the last couple of years. I will say, it makes sense, but there’s one big reason why I don’t think too many mainstream carriers will adopt your suggestion. And that is, business travelers would be disproportionately soaked. I used to travel primarily for business at my old job, and the last thing I wanted to do was to have to get to the airport 15-30 minutes earlier to drop off a bag, and then another 15-30 to retrieve it once I was home, usually late at night (I’m talking 2-3 day trips for training or longer client meetings, not day trips). Every minute counted, and not to mention, I couldn’t risk having the airline delay or lose my bag and have to show up to a client wearing day-old clothes or blue jeans. I suspect you are right that if we were to see one checked bag free/charge for carry-on implemented, there would have to be exceptions for those with elite status at least. Otherwise, the cries of outrage from business travelers would make sure this idea never gets off the ground.

  • Jonathan_G

    Do you really think the airlines are afraid to “soak” their business travelers? I’ve always had the impression that they price business class seats and refundable tickets so much higher than non-refundable coach expressly because they expect some number of businesses to be willing to pay for them.

    Yes, frequent travelers would be disproportionately inconvenienced, but since when have airlines cared about that?

  • AirlineEmployee

    First of all at what “checkpoint” are you charging for the bag that will be going in the overhead ?…because if it’s at the gate, the gate agents have enough to do – like getting the flight out on time — without the annoyance of some yokel arguing and debating that he/she doesn’t have to pay, shouldn’t have to pay, doesn’t want to pay – “get me a supervisor”. This is the worst possible moment for this discussion/ transaction to take place while, what ?, agents are being harassed about it while passengers are lined up behind this jerk listening to the whole thing, possibly adding their two cents and creating a riot ? Throw in irregular ops and weather delays and it will go downhill like a rocket sled.

    Secondly, you also can’t mean this payment will take place at the ticket counter (unless passengers come to the ticket counter)….because most veteran (or not so veteran) fliers have already printed their boarding passes or have downloaded them into their smartphones and are sailing through security checkpoints with their oversized, overweight “carryons” (by their definition only). The TSA certainly doesn’t care. We don’t even see these passengers at the ticket counter to observe bag sizes and the number of pieces they want to go through with……and they know it…so they will keep doing it.

    Third….back down to the gate scenario……we would be the laughing stock as every passenger that quickly learns how to game it will do so…..”I don’t have any money/ cash/ credit card” on me while they stand there with some smirky defying grin knowing we would be frazzled and rushed to get the plane out on time. Please also keep in mind that passengers who have “snuck through” security will find a way to hide that bag in the gate area and take their chances at the point of boarding.

    What’s my answer ?….keep doing what we are doing and take a possible delay. The gate agents try to be vigilant and walk through the gate area before boarding to look for oversized bags that might be a problem and get the gate check process going. I personally feel that if FA’s aren’t going to monitor the bin poachers, then a gate agent should be on board (midway down the aisle) doing this with gate-check tags in hand advising that the bag will be removed from the bin and gate checked. But again, manpower is the problem. You can’t just put 2-3 agents on every flight. It might be only 1 or 2 and if the crowd is thick….well you get the picture…..any other suggestions ?

  • Ton

    i agree the system would be a lot better if the location of your seat and the use of the bin above it would be linked

    1 of the things i notice when i travel in the usa (v europe) is the massive stacks of carry on luggage that some people take, and i know (i check the rules) a lot of that stuff is outside the rules. If airlines enforced their own rules the problem would be, well maybe not solved, but at least reduced.

    set rules, enforce them, (and it would help if we were allowed to kick the guy in row 6 who sneaks in first and keeps standing in the middle for 5 minutes in order to fold his jacket)

  • Lani Teshima

    The problem is not with people taking carry-on bags on board the plane; it’s bags that are technically too big to qualify as a carry-on. If you have a rolling upright that’s 22″ empty and you stuff it to the gills, and you can barely roll it down the aisle, and can barely raise it up over your head… if your “carry-on” doesn’t actually fit the SIZER at the gate, your bag is too big and it needs to be checked. U.S. gate care NEED TO ENFORCE sizes!

  • bayareascott

    Perfect response. Janice, the idea is not bad, but you propose no plan for implementation. It just isn’t going to fly with the attitudes of today’s travelers. And airlines should bribe people to check their bags at the gate? Please. It is ultimately a space issue. On some fights, there are a lot of volunteers to check bags. On JFK? Not surprising. If people don’t volunteer, then employees will just get stricter about forcing people to check their bags. It’s just better to solicit for volunteers first.