Despite interest from Congress, airline bag fees remain

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 22, 2011 

WASHINGTON — One of the most loathed aspects of holiday air travel, baggage fees, is at the center of a growing debate that does not look to be resolved soon.

Airline consumers who could otherwise spend $50 on a nice hostess gift this week must instead use the cash to buy their luggage a round-trip ticket in the bowels of an airplane.

To avoid the fees, passengers have taken creative steps, such as wearing multiple layers of clothes while filling baggy jacket pockets with extra socks and underwear.

Tyler Wichmann, 27, worked out a deal with his sister to carry-on some of his gifts on another flight to New York, where they're spending the holiday. He flies out of Charlotte, N.C., on Friday, determined not to check a bag.

"At some point, I feel like it's time to take a stand," the Charlotte attorney said. "That flight is not cheap. And we've become accustomed that it comes with certain things. It comes with a drink, a snack, and one of those things is a checked bag."

The anger over increasing fees has reached new levels that have gained the attention of Washington, pitting members of Congress against the airline industry.

Some consumers say they're being nickeled and dimed. The airlines say passengers are getting better deals because they don't pay for services they don't want or need.

And they say the proposed congressional intervention harkens back to the days of more government regulation of private businesses.

"Government regulation of pricing is a 30-year step backward to when customers paid more and had fewer choices. Consumers have been the big winners from airline deregulation," said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Airlines for America, a trade group that represents major airlines, such as U.S. Airways, American and Delta.

Many airlines introduced baggage fees in 2008. On a visit in August to Charlotte, U.S. Airways chief executive officer Doug Parker said the fees were not going anywhere. He said rising fuel prices and a tottering economy made the fees necessary for survival.

But some airlines, including U.S. Airways, have returned to profitability, assisted by the new fees. U.S. Airways posted nearly $450 million in profit last year. Company officials have said all of that can be attributed to fees.

According to the Department of Transportation, airlines received $3.4 billion from baggage fees last year, and nearly $1.7 billion during the first half of this year.

Some have questioned whether the government should collect on the billions in bag fee revenue. Earlier this year, Congress considered taxing airline baggage fees. According to the Government Accountability Office, those taxes could have added $240 million to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which helps pays for airport construction, traffic control systems and safety inspections. But the proposal was not added to an aviation reauthorization bill.

Travelers such as Wichmann, flying domestically on U.S. Airways, will be asked to pay $25 to check a first bag and $35 a second bag. Delta and American have similar rates.

Jet Blue offers the first bag for free and a second for $35. As attested by their commercials, Southwest is one of the few airlines where "bags fly free." (At least the first two; a third checked bag costs $50.)

"I try to use Southwest as much as possible, just because of the lack of baggage fees," said Mark Sheldon, a youth sports coordinator in Kansas City.

Rep. Larry Kissell, D-N.C., joined other federal lawmakers last week to press airlines to scale back their baggage fees. Kissell proposed legislation last week that would allow travelers to check one free bag on each flight. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate last month by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

Air travel is expensive enough, Kissell said, "without the added service charges and hidden fees."

Not only must passengers pay for their bag's flight, but taxpayers get hit because of the extra carry-on luggage that must be checked. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress this year that the extra carry-on luggage has cost the Transportation Security Administration $260 million a year.

"We as taxpayers spend a lot of money to secure air travel and make it possible for the airlines to operate," Kissell said. "I think it is asking very little back to allow passengers to check a bag without added cost."

The airline industry isn't backing down. Rather than having Congress regulate what airlines can or cannot offer to passengers, regulators should focus on the efficiency of the airport checkpoint, according to Airlines for America.

"You can't assume that all passengers are looking for the same services or want to pay for the same services," Lott said. "If you're charging everybody for that first bag, that means you're charging many people for a service they don't want and shouldn't pay for."

Delta officials didn't respond to requests for comment. U.S. Airways referred calls to the Air Transport Association.

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