Airlines are on a slippery slope with baggage fees. Now that it is becoming more commonplace to charge for checked luggage, what is going to happen when something goes wrong?

This week, Northwest has announced they will join other major carriers in implementing a fee of $15.00 for the first bag, and Delta has increased the charge for the second bag to $50.00.

These fees are probably here to stay in some form despite what happens with fuel prices. Once passengers get used to the idea, they will probably accept this, like BYO food, as a cost of traveling. Plus having the ability to adjust the baggage fees at will could provide a nice “cash cow” for the airlines. For example, I hate to give them the idea, but they could charge higher fees around the holidays when planes are busier and baggage handlers have more work to do. Or charge more for connecting flights.

But the most recent baggage horror show is a “software” glitch at JFK that affected the automatic bar code scanner and resulted in flight delays and thousands of American Airlines passengers leaving without their luggage.

“Handlers are currently sorting baggage manually, and the airline is telling its departing passengers that they can choose whether to go on the flight or not… Once we have the issue resolved, we’ll get the bags that are left behind on their way to the customer’s destination and delivered to them. Until then, we appreciate our customers’ patience as we work through this issue,” an AA spokesman said.

Passengers were left with the unenviable choice of catching their flight without luggage or sitting on the ground waiting for AA baggage handlers to find their luggage and load it on the flight they would eventually fly on. I think I would have taken off with the hopes that my luggage eventually would catch up with me.

Unfortunately, many of the flights that were affected were international departures. That throws a new monkey wrench into the situation. Delivering misdirected baggage to passengers domestically is one situation, processing it through customs and potentially across European borders is another. Though checked-baggage fees don’t apply to international flights, the odds of eventually seeing your suitcase during your vacation drop dramatically.

According to the American Airlines Contract of Carriage: Returning your bags may take longer on international flights due to flight duration, frequency of flights, or customs and immigration procedures at the destination airport.

While American has waived domestic checked-baggage fees for the day at JFK, it does raise an interesting question. If travelers are paying for checking their luggage, are they entitled to compensation if it doesn’t get there when they do? FedEx and UPS already issue refunds for delayed shipments. If the airlines want to get into what amounts to a shipping business, it doesn’t seem like it will be long until some lawyer pursues this and the current liability limits for airlines are removed.

And furthermore, what about the supposed TSA rules that say checked baggage must always travel with the passenger who checked it in. The AA Contract of Carriage notes, “Checked baggage will be accepted for transportation only on flights on which you are traveling.” More than once, after checking my bags and then trying to fly standby on an earlier flight, AA employees have claimed that, “security regulations require that you fly on the same plane as your luggage.”

Why do those “security rules” disappear when it is the airline that is separating passengers from their luggage. I have searched and can’t find these supposed TSA regulations. Perhaps they are secret, like the rules requiring personal government-approved IDs to board aircraft.

According to Wikipedia: In the United States, should passengers flying internationally with checked baggage fail to arrive at the departure gate before the flight is closed, that person’s baggage must be retrieved from the aircraft hold before the flight is permitted to take off, according to the rules of most air transportation authorities, such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and European Union’s Joint Aviation Authorities. This does not apply to domestic flights since all bags are required to go through bomb detection machines prior to being loaded. Making sure passengers board flights onto which they have checked baggage is called “passenger-baggage reconciliation.”

This situation at JFK with American Airlines certainly raises far more questions than only how to get the barcode scanner working again.