Concealing baggage fees after travelers purchase tickets


by Robert S. Donovan
The airline world has been buzzing about ancillary fees for about half a decade, since American Airlines decided to start charging passengers for their first checked bag. The airlines call it unbundling of airfares. Consumers call it names that can’t be published in this article.

Airlines still refuse to disclose ancillary fees so that they can be easily compared across airlines via travel agency displays prior to purchase; however, inexplicably, airlines refuse to present passengers clear baggage charges on their itineraries after tickets have been purchased.

After every major airline and most of the others followed American charging baggage fees and then began piling on more and more fees for everything from speaking with a human to pillows and blankets or getting extra legroom to reserving seats, consumers have become reluctantly resigned to a world of airline fees.

What consumers are not accepting is the airline practice of only advertising their bare-bones airfares that are being advertised without any of the ancillary fees in order to allow carriers to make their prices look deceptively as low as Southwest’s low airfares that include two bags and open seating.

This has been an ongoing battle in which airlines have not relented. Consumers find themselves without the ability to compare prices across airlines without constructing an airline-by-airline spreadsheet divined from complex airline “disclosures.” I’ll admit that the airlines inform passengers of these ancillary fees; however, figuring them out after taking into account frequent flier exemptions, credit card benefits and arcane reservation rules that dictate whether family and companions flying with these privileged travelers can share in various fee exemptions takes extraordinary effort.

When airline representatives have spoken before the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections (ACACP) they all claim that they want to sell all their services through their entire distribution system. Airlines say the right words, but their actions are misleading and deceptive.

When challenged to demonstrate their websites’ transparency and the ease with which passengers can compare prices including ancillary fees between New York and Los Angeles, airline representatives admitted that it could not be easily done.

OK. Let’s say that we agree with the airlines that expecting to be able to compare the full cost of travel, including baggage fees and seat-reservation fees, across airlines won’t happen; what about simply getting the airline to present passengers with the cost of checking baggage after they have made their airline purchase?

If any consumer purchases a ticket at the ticket counter at an airport, the gate agent can instantly tell the passenger how much checking baggage will cost. Why won’t airlines tell online consumers that information and include it on the flight confirmation itinerary?

What possible reason could the airlines have to continue to hide the baggage fees behind web-linked fee rules and exemptions after tickets have been purchased? The airlines simply intone, “Passengers can figure fees out.”

Passengers ask, “Why can’t the airlines figure it out and tell us?”

Being misleading and deceptive in order to get the sale has been the province of unscrupulous companies and salesmen for centuries. The warning, “buyer beware,” goes back millennia. However, continuing with that duplicity after the sale is beyond the pale.

It seems that airlines should show their cards after passengers have purchased tickets rather than continuing to refuse to clearly and unambiguously declare what baggage fees will be for upcoming flights.

Photo: By Robert S. Donovan from Flickr Creative Commons

  • Anonymous

    Without a specific example, this complaint about baggage fees is a little vague. Since American Airlines once more is Charlie’s target, I checked by booking a round-trip on AA. On the “Review and Pay” page (where you can also put tickets on hold for 24 hours if you wish to price and baggage fee check elsewhere), there is a clear header “View Fare Rules.” Under that is another link, “Optional Services and Carrier Charges .”

    That link produces a pop-up screen showing a very clear and well laid out chart with baggage charges. I fail to see any confusion. Could not be plainer.

    The constant complaints about unbundled fares are very curious considering the consumer victory in airline deregulation during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Until then the CAB fixed prices and routes. Consumers had no choices. Now it seems there are too many choices for consumers!

    Critics of these fees underestimate the intelligence of the American public. What is their solution, fixing prices again, or mandating certain services be included in each fare? That re-regulation will once more put the consumer at a disadvantage.

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  • Anonymous

    I think the answer to your question is in your methodology: you booked on AA itself.

    My husband and I book directly with Delta – flying in and out of MSP, it’s pretty much the best thing to do. However, I think you and I are in the minority – most people use third party websites to book as cheaply as possible. Getting the fees from those sites is like getting blood from a stone, from what I’ve seen.

  • Anonymous

    I will comment that I have in my hands a confirmation email from Delta and the specific baggage fees are clearly listed in a table.

  • Anonymous

    In that case it is not the airline’s problem but the OTA’s or vendor’s problem. The current rules also covers travel agencies as they, too, must disclose the airline’s baggage fees and policies.

    Since literally all agencies need a GDS or a direct connection with the airline to book seats and issue tickets, and most GDS already comply with the baggage fees disclosure, then I am not sure what Charlie is referring to when he says there is a lack of disclosure.

    Right now I normally get a baggage information when I autoprice an itinerary and when I print or email the passenger copy of their itinerary and e-ticket receipt from my GDS. I don’t know what else is missing.

  • Charlie Leocha

    When an airline at the airport tells you that you will have to pay for baggage, they say, “Mr. so-and-so your baggage charges for this flight are $XX.XX.”

    That is the simple ask that I have from the airlines. After passengers have purchased their ticket the airlines will have a simple statement saying, “Your baggage fees for this flight will be $XX.XX”

    Right now passengers get a matrix where they can figure out their own baggage fee based on various exemptions depending on elite level in frequent flier programs and credit cards used. And only the most-savvy passengers can figure out baggage fees that are exempted by virtue of having reservations under the same reservation number. (I challenge anyone to find a good explanation of what “same reservation” means to airlines — made at the same time? Under the same PNR? Here is the exact wording from Delta — “The benefit applies to up to 9 people traveling in the eligible member’s reservation.” OK, what is the leisure traveler who travel once or twice a year a year supposed to do with that?)

  • Anonymous

    Same old report from Charlie. Yawn………..

  • DCTA

    Yup…last week I flew American, then United, then USAir – I had the baggage fee info on all all my confirmations. AND it was easily available when I checked-in on line as well.

  • Anonymous

    Charlie should use a travel agent as he doesn’t seem to be very good about booking his own travel if he can’t find the information that is easily available.

  • Anonymous

    And he still hasn’t justified why he thinks a company has an obligation to make it easy to compare its prices with the competition. What other industries do that? As long as all prices are disclosed to the customer prior to purchase, all is well.

  • Anonymous


  • dcta

    When I am shopping for a computer I don’t expect Best Buy to disclose all their ancillary fees (like extended warranty, etc.) as well as their competitors’. Honestly, I don’t really get this on-going issue.

    I don’t expect Barnes & Noble to disclose Amazon’s shipping policy….

  • Anonymous

    Yes, he’s written this article a dozen times. I think the problem is he hasn’t explained exactly what it is he wants to see happen to the process, just what he doesn’t like. I for one normally buy the “bare bones” fare, so that’s exactly what I want to and do see. I just have the sense that Charlie’s ideal world would make things more complicated and/or expensive for me (while possibly simplifying things for himself and others like him?). The burden shouldn’t be on me to go to extra trouble to find out what a simple airfare is without extras; it should be on those who want the extras to learn their options and what they cost. Or, if I’m wrong, exactly what is Charlie’s goal?