Luggage Fees Cause Unintended Difficulties

I’ve been thinking about the mess caused by luggage fees as a lesson in unintended consequences. While airlines surely expected that passengers would carry on more luggage to avoid paying fees to check it, I wonder whether they anticipated the level of trouble this has caused.

My daughter was flying cross-country recently, boarding a Delta 757 in Los Angeles, and the plane ran out of overhead storage space before half the passengers had boarded. Flight attendants came through with tags to gate check all the bags that wouldn’t fit under the seats, much to the distress of many remaining passengers, including one being forced to check her bridesmaid’s dress the night before a wedding.

On our recent trip across the country, my husband and I  saw our carry-on wheelies gate-checked, as we expected, for two legs on regional jets. But we also had to check them on the leg from JFK to LAX on a crowded 757, although they were well within the size limits.

It’s not just the fees that are exacerbating the shortage of luggage space in the cabin. Airlines have cut back hard on capacity, so planes are fuller.

And yet they’ve also cut back on staff. So even if airlines were  inclined to police the size of carry-ons to ensure that people don’t exceed the limits, they no longer have enough gates agents and flight attendants to do it.  Meanwhile, the luggage struggle and gate checking not only annoy passengers, they significantly slow the boarding process.

It’s my theory that this is why Southwest continues to allow passengers to check bags for free. Its business model has always depended on quick boarding and turnarounds, and it can’t afford to have passengers blocking the aisles while they try to stuff bags into insufficient space.

One proposal is to limit carry-ons strictly by federal law. But who would enforce it? Do we want the TSA to regulate bag size at security checkpoints when they should be concentrating on security? Would airline personnel who don’t  enforce airline rules suddenly have time to enforce federal ones?

It would be much better, I think, if airlines removed the luggage fees, at least for the first checked bag, and raised ticket prices to compensate for the lost revenue. Since only Southwest seems willing to absorb this competitive disadvantage, maybe the federal law should require airlines to allow one piece of checked luggage per passenger without charge. That would force all the airlines to raise ticket prices, and they wouldn’t be able to undercut each other.

It’s worth wondering, though, how much the airlines really want to fix this problem. Discouraging people from checking bags leaves them with more room in the cargo hold for commercial cargo, which brings in more cash. And fewer bags to handle means fewer baggage handlers, another savings.

Meanwhile, I’ve been packing under the assumption that my small wheelie may have to be checked. And I bring a second carry-on that can fit under the seat and can hold all my valuables, electronics and material to keep me entertained. Nobody’s going to take that away from me. (For a weekend trip, I may carry only the smaller bag, as long as I can fit everything in it.)

Luckily for me, I’m not much in demand as a bridesmaid.

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