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.