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What are checked baggage fees for?

Marketplace Staff May 14, 2010

What are checked baggage fees for?

Marketplace Staff May 14, 2010


Tess Vigeland: So, back to that whole charge-for-baggage debate. ‘Cause I’m not the only one who just can’t let it go. I know, I know, we just have to get used to it, right? You bring a bag. You’re gonna pay a fee.

But riddle me this: What exactly do you get for that fee? Don’t you at least have an expectation of getting your checked bag back? That’s what Dartmouth Professor Charles Wheelan is asking.
Tell us what happened to you.

CHARLES WHEELAN: Well, I arrived in Manchester. I was flying from Toronto to Manchester, and I assumed that my bag would arrive as well. I had, after all, paid my $25 bag check fee. But the next day there was no bag, the next week there was no bag, and now six weeks later there is still no bag, so I am asking for my $25 back.

VIGELAND: Well, I think most of us would react to this by probably just staying on hold with the airline for days on end, but you did something a little more than that.

WHEELAN: Well, first I did the hold on end, I mean I went through every phone tree branch there is, but after a while I was so mired in what I began to call “phone tree hell” that I had to resort to a different option.

VIGELAND: And tell us what you did?

WHEELAN: So I went to small claims court, and I filed a lawsuit against United Airlines, and I simply asked for my $25 back.

VIGELAND: Now, the bag fee was $25, but from what I understand the cost to actually file the claim is about $72, so what’s your point here?

WHEELAN: Well, at first glance, it wouldn’t seem to make much sense. Turns out that it’s actually really important in terms of economics. It’s essentially vengeance, and vengeance has a technical definition, which is you’re willing to harm yourself in order to impose harm on somebody else. Now when we do that, what the behavioral psychologists have learned, is it makes us feel good. It lights up the pleasurable parts of the brain just like doing other things that make you feel good. So vengeance might actually be quite rational.

VIGELAND: Who knew right?

WHEELAN: Well, I know, because when I drove back from the district court it was the best I had felt in six weeks.

VIGELAND: Well, so you feel better, but what are you really hoping to get out of this?

WHEELAN: Well, two things. One is I just wanted to signal that this level of customer service is not acceptable. The second is the more serious, which is there’s still the missing bag. And the second round that we have to go through is what is that stuff worth? And this is kinda sending a small little signal that, you know what, I’m going to fight there, too.

VIGELAND: The question that you pose is what can I expect when I’m giving you $25 for my bag, and my basic expectation is that I’m going to get it back. Would you have done anything differently had you not had to pay that fee?

WHEELAN: Oh, absolutely. I think that if I hadn’t been charged the $25, then there’s no way I could say right now, while they’re ostensibly still looking for the bag, hey, at a minimum, you owe me that bag. That’s the bare minimum I should expect. And if there were no fee like that, I wouldn’t have that kind of tangible thing that I could ask for in the interim.

VIGELAND: Have you heard back from United? Are you expecting them to show up?

WHEELAN: I am expecting a call any day now, and I still haven’t got it. The pattern of no contact whatsoever initiated by United persists. They just won’t contact me.

VIGELAND: Charles Wheelan is a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and also a visiting professor currently at Dartmouth College, and also the author of the book “Naked Economics.” Thanks so much. It’s been fun talking with you.

WHEELAN: Well, thank you, and if you see a black hanging bag with my stuff in it, please send it back to Manchester, N.H.

VIGELAND: You got it.

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