Total fee absurdity: when your luggage costs more than your airfare



Tom Ungar and his wife spent $128 to fly from Venice, Italy, to Naples, which is a ridiculously low fare. But when their checked luggage tipped the scales at just over 20 kilos, their airline demanded an additional $152.

A luggage fee that exceeds your airfare? Welcome to the wacky world of a la carte fees — a world filled with consumer “benefits” that airline apologists believe you’ll love.

Ungar’s case is something of an extreme example. He was flying on easyJet, an airline known for its preposterous luggage policies. But ignore his cautionary tale at your own peril, because this is the world the Big Three legacy airlines aspire to, if we, their captive customers, would just let them.

Ungar’s misadventure began when he checked in for his flight in Venice recently. After placing their baggage on the scales, an easyJet employee informed the couple that their luggage was “a bit” overweight and pointed them to another representative. That person said their luggage was free to fly for an additional fee of $152.

“The baggage penalty cost more than the airfare for the two of us,” says Ungar. “Astounding.”

The Ungars felt they had no choice but to pay. They returned to the check-in line, where the first employee made a suggestion: Why not repack your bags and carry the excess items on the plane with you?

“She was surprised the first woman at the check-in area did not make the suggestion herself,” he says. “We then walked right back up to the second check-in counter where there was still no line, and the representative said she had already sent our luggage for loading. I asked her why she had already sent it on, and to please get it back so we could lighten our luggage.”

Of course, easyJet refused.

Ancillary fee heroes — or villains?

EasyJet is often held up as one of the ancillary fee heroes of the airline industry. It earns nearly 20 percent of its revenues from forcing passengers to pay for luggage, seat assignments and boarding passes, among other things. In 2012, that came to a cool $1.1 billion, which is not bad for a little European airline. It ranked eighth among worldwide air carriers, according to IdeaWorks, which advises airlines on how to make more money from extras.

“The airline simply has too large an ancillary revenue presence to be excluded from the top 10 lists,” IdeaWorks admiringly concluded.

Yet to passengers like Ungar, there’s nothing heroic about demanding more money for your luggage. When he disputed the “ancillary” fee at the gate, he was told he had no choice.

“Unless we paid the penalty, our baggage would not be returned, and we would be denied access to board our flight,” he says. “My options were to either pay the ransom and ruin one day, or not pay and have the entire vacation ruined. I really had no choice; I had to pay.”

EasyJet kept saying “No.” An appeal to its managers got them absolutely nowhere, despite a written promise that they would look into Ungar’s problem. The airline seemed determined to keep their $152.

Fee advocates insist that they are just giving passengers what they want: The “freedom” to choose to fly without luggage and save money, and the “freedom” to not subsidize another passenger’s checked bags.

Both of those “benefits” are as self-serving as they sound. When is the last time you flew without any luggage? And besides, onerous new policies by the likes of Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit now charge you for carry-on items, so there goes that argument. They’re going to get you, one way or another.

The subsidization argument is also easily debunked. If airline luggage fees truly reflected an airline’s costs, then you would expect one of two things: The fee would be the same, no matter how many bags you checked; or the fee would go down as you checked more bags, because the airline was offering you a discount for the volume, which most businesses do.

But that’s not what happens. Check out American Airlines’ baggage policies, for example.

$25 for the first checked bag.
$35 for the second checked bag.
$150 for any additional pieces

Whoa! One hundred fifty bucks! Can you say “money grab”?

What’s next?

The fee defenders haven’t won this argument. Not so long as customers like Ungar still walk this Earth. It’s easy to see that the likes of easyJet aren’t simply recovering their cost of transporting their customers’ luggage; they aren’t giving us the ability to not subsidize someone else’s luggage and they aren’t offering us “choices.”

Airlines are making money — lots of money — through a combination of onerous policies, lack of clear disclosure, bullying tactics and good old-fashioned greed.

Don’t be surprised if, on your next flight, you are asked to pay more for the privilege of transporting your luggage than your airfare. The airline industry has embraced these bizarre pricing practices because of laissez-faire regulation and because we listened to the misguided airline amen choir, who saw deceptive a la carte fees as the only way for the industry to earn a profit. I guess running a good business doesn’t work for them anymore.

It’s not hard to see that the era of easyJet can’t last. Customers won’t stand for it. In the meantime, here are a few executive contacts for easyJet, where you can let your displeasure over its dishonest policies be known.

And one more thing: Pay attention to the advice you take from other, so-called travel “experts” on this topic. To claim these consumer-hostile policies make sense, you’d have to either be on the airline’s payroll or an idiot. And in one or two cases, maybe, both.

  • dcta

    I’m not a “fee defender” but really, who needs more than two checked bags? That $150 fee for the third bag is obviously meant to discourage passengers from considering a third bag. How often do you think a third bag is even checked?

  • BobChi

    Elliott can call me all the names he wants – “fee defender”, “airline apologist” his sometime favorite “fanboy”, and now an “idiot”, but I like the fee system. I can avoid those fees by not taking luggage that exceeds whatever limits have been established; or, if I prefer, I can easily figure out what the fees are at the airlines’ websites and choose to pay them. Or I can fly a carrier without fees, or I can ship things instead of checking them. Yes, it’s called “choice”, and no Elliott name calling (which is truly unprofessional in my opinion) will make any difference.

  • TJ

    So Mr. Ungar and his wife actually spent $140 per person to fly from Venice to Naples, with their luggage ([$128 + $152] / 2). And on EasyJet they would have flown non-stop. A quick check of alternatives, assuming travel on a Friday 3 weeks from now, shows that the least expensive alternative was $155 per person on Alitalia and required a change of planes in Rome and took 3 hours longer. And perhaps Alitalia might have added at least some small baggage charge to this as well.
    I understand the concern about the strange pricing and the surprise at the airport, but if they really needed to fly from Venice to Rome, EasyJet would have remained a logical choice if the fare had been $140 with no baggage charge.
    So the surprise was unfortunate, but even ‘all in’ the fare was not unreasonable. If they had been lucky enough to have the more helpful counter staff make the repack suggestion before they checked the bag the total fare could have been substantially less.
    While I am not a fan of surcharges either, it seems to me the Ungars still flew a convenient routing at a fair price. They also learned how to travel less expensively on EasyJet in the future – something its regular passengers have no doubt figured out already. It seems to me that, despite the outrage, EasyJet remains a logical choice on many of its routes.
    This is kind of Business 101 but, like it or not, in a competitive, free market economy, companies have a right to determine their own price structure – to choose what they charge for their services and how they make those charges. The public then gets to ‘vote with their feet’ about its acceptance of this pricing structure.
    EasyJet is a successful airline from a profit perspective. This seems to upset some people, who would perhaps prefer they charged less, or differently, lost money and eventually went out of business. EasyJet’s success is simply due to the fact that people continue to fly on EasyJet in substantial numbers. If this ceases to be the case because of EasyJet’s fee structure, you can be sure the fee structure will change. The most effective complaint is giving your travel dollars to a competitor, which perhaps the Ungars will do the next time they fly on a route serviced by EasyJet. Other passengers may choose differently and have the right to do so.

  • TJ

    One final comment. Having reread Mr. Elliot’s final paragraph, apparently my comment above makes me ‘an idiot’ in his eyes. If so, so be it; but I can assure you that I am not on EasyJet’s payroll. I have flown on that airline only twice, but I flew them by choice and felt I received fair value on both occasions, regardless of how the final price was determined.

  • dcta

    that’s right – as long as you know what you are getting for what you are paying, you are being fairly treated. The Easyjet website is pretty clear on it’s fees for various services and it is the consumer’s responsibility to examine that prior to purchase.

    There is a reason “caveat emptor” as a phrase and warning has come down through the ages to remind us to be careful in the 21st century!!!

    Bravo TJ and BobChi!!!!

  • dcta

    EasyJet isn’t going to disappear and neither will the fees that Chris dislikes so much. Bottom line: the airline is wildly popular and successful in Europe and believe me, they all know about the fees. The same was said for years about Southwest – at that time it was the impossibility of getting seat assignments – and they continued to grow and thrive.

    As long as carriers like Easy Jet are out there with rock bottom fares (like this one in Italy), the public will continue to flock to them. I took a look at EasyJet for 4/18/14 Venice to April – the fare comes back at $52.22 per person. The only alternative I can find is Alitalia with a connection in Palermo at $378.30 per person. Elapsed time on EasyJet – 1 hr 15 min, on Alitalia – 2 hrs 45 min with another 35 min on the ground in Catania. With fares and lost hours like that, do you really think people will stop booking EasyJet? I’d gladly pay an oversize luggage fee for that it will surely be less than the $326.08 difference (although I don’t ever travel with much baggage to begin with.)

    So complain all you want. Forecast doom all you’d like. Call me an “idiot” or accuse me of being on the airline’s payroll – your prognostications are worthless – the era of EasyJet and Ryan Air, and ancillary fees is going to be a very long one, perhaps an actual “age” rather than an “era”

    “It’s not hard to see that the era of easyJet can’t last. Customers won’t stand for it. In the meantime, here are a few executive contacts for easyJet, where you can let your displeasure over its dishonest policies be known. – See more at:

    I’m also having a difficult time understanding “dishonest policies” and also, when’s the last time you tried to get your bags back from a carrier in the US after they were checked?