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Carrying too much baggage

Scott Jagow Mar 17, 2010

The airlines’ checked bag fees have done exactly what you’d expect them to do: Generate revenue and create problems. As we reported this morning, flight attendants want the government to do something about the latter.

If you’ve flown anytime recently, you know why the largest flight attendants union is griping. To avoid the checked bag fees, passengers are overstuffing their carry-ons, which is causing arguments and even injuries. The union wants Congress to pass the “Securing Cabin Baggage Act.” From the Marketplace Morning Report:

It would do two things: Set a maximum size for any carry-on bag and force the TSA guards to make sure extra or oversize bags never make it past security checkpoints.

CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT: No, it wouldn’t work.

Christopher Elliott is the Reader Advocate for National Geographic Traveler Magazine. And while he says the number one cause of fights on planes is scarce luggage space, he’s not sure this bill is the best way to solve the problem.

ELLIOTT: The TSA is screening people for security. You cannot expect a TSA agent to count bags.

Please, no. The airline agents are supposed to do this, and in my recent experience, they are being more vigilant about bag size. But each plane is different, and each airline has different policies, so there’s going to be tension and frustration. The airlines brought this upon themselves, and airline consultant Jay Sorenson says passengers are going along with it:

“The airlines have not seen a significant pushback from consumers with the baggage fees, so they don’t find it discouraging. Instead, it somehow emboldened them.”

Sorensen likens the airline industry and its players to characters in the Wizard of Oz. He described the wizard as “a supreme ruler, but not all great and powerful,” a role played by the major airlines since they aren’t “sitting on a heap of cash” as some consumers may think, he said.

Rather, he said, the airlines have suffered because of the economic downturn, and they were hit hard by rising crude oil prices. The world’s oil markets, he said, are the wicked witches in this act.

And the good witch? Southwest Airlines, he said.

Southwest’s “Bags Fly Free” strategy is capping the baggage fees at other airlines, but how long will Southwest stick with its plan?

According to Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins, consumers don’t need to worry about the airline implementing baggage fees in the near future.

“We will never say never just because you can’t in this world,” Hawkins said. “But our leadership feels very strongly that people don’t want to be nickeled and dimed, and that in the long run, it’s more advantageous to our business model to not impose something on customers that we feel they should get for free or included in the cost of their ticket.”

But Sorensen believes Southwest could reach a tipping point. His research notes that if Southwest achieved Delta Air Line Inc.’s baggage fee revenue of $7.32 per passenger, Southwest’s 100 million annual passengers would contribute $732 million to its bottom line.

The point being — baggage fees may only continue to increase. Do you think the government should do something here? Or is it simply up to passengers to force the airlines’ strategies?

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