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Congress defends carry-on bags

Schumer leads the charge against carry-on fees. But would you rather pay fees or higher fares?

By Teresa Mears Apr 20, 2010 2:17PM

Congress may have been slow to respond to the economic crisis, but several members have jumped right on what they apparently consider a more pressing issue: carry-on bag fees.


Spirit Airlines’ announcement that it would begin charging up to $45 per bag for carry-on luggage has drawn a flurry of congressional action, including a bill to tax carry-on bag revenue. Sen. Charles Schumer, D.-N.Y., personally garnered promises from five airlines -- Delta, United, JetBlue, American and US Airways -- that they would not begin the nefarious practice of charging customers to carry a bag onto an airplane.


We’re not sure how long that pledge will last, but rest assured that, unless you’re flying Spirit or one of the airlines that didn’t respond, your sacred carry-on is safe from fees until they pry it from your cold, dead hands. You will, however, have to lift it over your head and into the overhead bin.


What annoys us about this whole brouhaha is not that you have to pay for a carry-on bag per se, but that buying an airline ticket has become an exercise in investigative reporting, not to mention clairvoyance. Theoretically, you can use a website to compare by price, but the price you see is not necessarily the price you’ll pay. We just found a flight for $224 from Fort Lauderdale to Kansas City, for example. But once you add taxes (included in some online prices and not in others), it’s really $257. Want to check your bag? That brings it to $305, a big difference from the original quoted price.


Several travel search sites do have a pop-up chart with baggage fees, but Kayak will actually recalculate the prices for you with the number of bags you select, taxes included. By the way, Southwest and JetBlue still allow you to check your bag for free.


Some believe congressional action is warranted. “This may seem like a minor issue for such high-ranking politicians to be addressing, but there’s no end in sight for these fees,” Chris Talamo wrote at The Dartmouth. “The game is all about lowering the initial fare to be competitive with other airlines and increasing secret fees to compensate. The airlines are blatantly lying to us, which I find unacceptable no matter how much the industry is struggling.”

The airlines garnered about 7% of their revenues from fees last year. (SmarterTravel has a detailed report on fees, with links to a chart.) It’s either fees or higher fares.


“Consumers hate added fees. That's natural. We'd rather pay one price and not be nickel-and-dimed at every step of a transaction,” Rick Newman wrote at U.S. News’ Money. “But we also like low prices, and the various fees that airlines tack onto a trip have actually helped drive airfares lower than ever.”


He notes that the average round-trip domestic fare is $306, down 14% from a year ago. Not only that, but fares are about 25% lower than they were in 1995. “Fees have gone up by a lot less than fares have come down, and even with the new fees, air travel remains a bargain these days,” he wrote.

Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe believes air fares and fees are the business of business, not government, and Congress should let the market decide. He writes:

But if Schumer grieves so deeply about travelers being “nickeled and dimed’’ when they fly, why has he never gone after the U.S. ticket tax, which adds 7.5% to the price of every domestic flight? Or the $16.50 the federal government charges for each international departure and arrival? Or the $17 in customs and inspection fees paid by passengers flying into U.S. airports from abroad? Or the “passenger facilities charges’’ (up to $18 per round-trip)? Or the “U.S. Security Service Fee’’ ($2.50 per departure)? Or the “domestic segment fee’’ ($3.70 per flight segment)?

A few tongue-in-cheek suggestions for avoiding bag fees: Visit a nudist resort or buy JetBlue’s new Extrago Sherpa Shirt.


Passengers may not be as upset about the carry-on bag fee as are members of Congress: The Street reports that Spirit’s bookings are up 50%.


What’s your take? Would you rather pay an all-inclusive price or pay separate fees for such services as checking baggage, taking baggage on board, and booking seats? And should Congress get involved?


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