Should the Airlines be Forced to Allow Us to Check One Free Bag?

Do we have a right to check a bag for free on our flight? Or shoul airlines be allowed charge us any amount they choose to?

Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La, introduced legislation this week that would require airlines to allow all passengers to check one bag free of charge, and to carry on a second bag, also free of charge, subject only to reasonable size limits.  The legislation also requires airlines to provide passengers with free access to restrooms and to provide free drinking water.

Following the trend to give catchy albeit ridiculous names to legislation, this is termed the Airline Passenger BASICS – or Basic Airline Standards to Improve Customer Satisfaction – Act.  And rather than contain all the relevant provisions in a single act, it seems the good senator has not only an abundance of ideas but also of catchy acronyms, as she promises to shortly introduce a second bill, the Fair Airline Industry Revenue (FAIR) Act, which would impose penalties on airlines that don’t comply with the BASICS Act.

Landrieu says

When an airline advertises a flight, that is how much it should cost, plain and simple.  Passengers should not be charged additional fees for checked or carry-on baggage, drinkable water or other reasonable requests.  Air travel can be a stressful experience for many reasons, but unfair fees for basic amenities should not be one of them.  Passengers have been nickeled and dimed for far too long and something has to be done about it.  Air carriers should be required to provide a minimum standard of service to their passengers or face additional fees – that is what the Airline Passenger BASICS Act and the FAIR Act will do.

On the face of it, there is both sense and fairness in what she says.  The airlines have definitely over-reacted in their move towards ‘unbundling’ the various things that were formerly included in a ticket price, and there is a clear and steady move towards more and more things that were once included ‘for free’ being now charged at outrageously high levels as extras.

It surely offends anyone’s sense of fair play (anyone, that is, who isn’t an airline executive) to see a situation where it costs more to fly one’s suitcase to a destination than it costs to fly oneself, as is sometimes the case these days.  One’s suitcase doesn’t require a seat, access to toilets, free drinks, and doesn’t earn frequent flier miles, while weighing perhaps half or less the weight of oneself and taking up massively fewer cubic feet of space.  For that matter, a suitcase doesn’t also bring with it one or two oversized overweight carry-on items, too!

It is also true that it has become much harder to compare airfares or even understand what the true total cost of a flight will be.  This is due to differing airline policies as to what is included and what is extra, and what the costs of the extra (but essential) items may be.  It is fair to seek some sort of reasonably transparent pricing disclosures by the airlines.

Would Legislation be an Uncalled For Interference with Free Market Forces?

Is legislation to control how the airlines can unbundle their services and what they can sell them for the thin end of the wedge, and is this an example of ‘The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions’?  Is it the start of re-regulating the airlines?

The Air Transport Association, the airlines’ lobbying group, predictably doesn’t like this new legislation.  They say it would be unfair for passengers, because if they had to include the cost of a checked bag back into the ticket price, then all passengers would be paying for a service only used by some passengers (my best guess is that at least one third of passengers don’t check bags).

But the ATA also displays the danger of ‘reasoning by analogy’.  They said it is common practice for other industries to charge fees for extra services, and because of that, they say why should the airlines be unfairly singled out for legislative oversight.  In particular, their spokesman Steve Lott said

You don’t get one free Coke at your hotel when you check in

That is of course true, but hotels didn’t formerly give free Cokes and now charge for them, and most hotel guests don’t have an unavoidable need to buy a Coke from the hotel reception at checkin time.  And when it comes to fees, hotels don’t charge you extra per suitcase you take into your room with you, they don’t charge you extra each time you take a shower, they don’t charge you extra if you want to sleep in the bed, and there is no coin operated electricity meter restricting the power you can use in the room.

Ignoring the weakness of the ATA analogy, the question remains – is this a matter that requires legislative oversight, or can the free market be relied upon to create the most appropriate balance between airlines and their passengers?

We certainly agree and support any requirement to make it easier for passengers to conveniently understand, up front, the total cost of air travel on competing airlines, including all ‘optional’ (but, for most of us, essential) fees, surcharges, taxes, and whatever else.  The free market forces can not operate so efficiently in an environment where the airline successfully obfuscate their charging policies.

Furthermore, it is clear that free market forces are not working at present.  Most airlines charge almost exactly the same for bags as their competitors, and with fees at outrageous and insultingly exploitive rather than fair levels, it seems clear the airlines have run amok with their fee charging.

So – do we need to beat the airlines with a legislative stick?  Would simply requiring them to expose their exorbitant fees be sufficient?

What do you think?

21 thoughts on “Should the Airlines be Forced to Allow Us to Check One Free Bag?”

  1. The airlines have brought this on themselves. Their rapacity is responsible for this. I would bet that airlines are disliked even more than Congress.

  2. The cost of the ticket should absolutely include one bag for no additional fee. Also included should be water and toilet use without charge. The airlines have simply gotten too greedy.

  3. One checked and one carry-on (50 pounds and reasonable size, respectively) have been industry standards since the 1960s and this standard only changed when fuel prices rose a few years ago and airlines started leaking money like newborn babies leak…… well, you know. The absurdity of bag fees costing more than passenger tickets, as observed by Mr Rowell, should be corrected, if for no other reason than to lower the exposure to stupidity in everyday life and maintain sanity.

    The craziness extends to the following: if I fly ORD-ATL, the checked bag costs. If I travel ORD–Munich (via ATL), the same checked bag is free. If I fly ORD-ATL, stop over for a day, then fly ATL-Munich, the bag on day 1 is charged, and on day 2 is free because they are not “connecting” flights. Sometimes it is actually cheaper to send the bags via air freight rather than take them with me. Of course, if you have a frequent flier status or book the flight with the “right” credit card, the bag flies gratis again. Talk about ridiculous.

    I would prefer the airlines to have a blinding flash of common sense rather than have Congress get their sticky fingers in it, but the change really needs to be made and I only have the two options (like on election day *smile*).

    To Lila Davis: Airlines _actually perform their job_ every day: people routinely get to their destinations and their bags usually arrive with them. Congress on the other hand (both parties, both houses) has devolved so far that a nursery school class during finger painting hour looks like a model of decorum by comparison.

    1. Hi, Loyd

      Thanks for your comments. One quick correction. At least for the decade or two prior to the introduction of baggage fees – first on a second bag, and then subsequently on the first bag too – the US industry standard varied between two or three bags for free, and each weighing 70 lbs.

      The 70lb per bag limit started to drop to 50lbs slightly prior to the reduction in the number of free bags.

      Yes, formerly we could – on many airlines – fly with three bags weighing up to 210lbs for free. Now, for most people, we get nothing.

      1. David, I totally forgot about the 70 pound limit back then.
        Thanks for the clarification and sorry for the error.


  4. The government should keep its hands off free markets. The consumer should decide this issue. If AA wants to act like RyanAir, let them and let those of us who make rational decisions based on total cost of service decide who we want to fly with.

  5. David, I completely agree with you comment:

    “We certainly agree and support any requirement to make it easier for passengers to conveniently understand, up front, the total cost of air travel on competing airlines, including all ‘optional’ (but, for most of us, essential) fees, surcharges, taxes, and whatever else. The free market forces can not operate so efficiently in an environment where the airline successfully obfuscate their charging policies.”

    What we need is not more regulation; it is more transparency. We should be informed clearly what charges will be for a ticket, before the ticket is purchased, what all charges will be for reasonably required services. I understand that there could be a debate over what constitutes “reasonable”, so if there is a case for legislation, it would be to define the rules for such transparency.

    I fly discount airlines in Asia all the time. I can make an informed decision on whether to fly Air Asia (the ultimate “unbundled” fare) or Singapore Airlines (“full-service”) because Air Asia lets me know ahead of time what the charges will be for most services.

    By the way, the same kind of transparency would benefit our medical industry. Recently I went into a hospital and asked what the cost of a CT scan would be. The customer service people honestly did not know and could not tell me. So, where is the possibility for “informed choice” and, therefore, for market forces to have an impact in lowering medical costs?

  6. OK – I HATE the fee as much as anyone, but if this becomes law do you really think the airlines won’t just increase ticket prices across the board.

    1. Hi, Don

      The bogeyman of ‘If we don’t let the airlines charge us for this, they will charge us for something else instead’ is one often cited in all sorts of contexts, not just bag fees, along the lines of ‘If we require the airlines to do (or not do) xxxxxxx then will simply charge more for their tickets instead’.

      I don’t think that is true. Here’s why. If it was a case of simply charging more for tickets, something that is much easier for the airlines to do, why do they go to all these ridiculous, complicated, and good-will sapping lengths to sneak in extra charges?

      For sure, with most of us now paying $50+ roundtrip to check a single bag, if the airlines lost the billions of dollars of baggage fees, they’d have to claw much of that back from us as ticket revenue. But being as how the airlines – and we, their customers – are most sensitive to the published ticket price (and this is also why the airlines are struggling as much as possible to avoid having to show the total price of flying somewhere, inclusive of all fees, taxes, surcharges, etc) they would probably be less rapacious overall than they currently are when they think they can sneak fees in under the wire without attracting too much attention.

      1. Let’s face it–the American Traveller is getting exactly what he has asked for. The infrequent/leisure traveller buys tickets based on price first and foremost. When I travel on my own dime, I will choose one airline over another because of a $5/ticket difference–and you know that you do also. With the advent of fare comparison websites (which are avoided by you-know-which airline) the travelling public can–and does–compare fares side by side, and the search results are usually presented in order sorted by cost.
        People love to complain about service, but for many/most, that is not why they chose an airline. If service really was a game-changer, then Jet Blue and Virgin America would have taken over the US domestic market by now.
        Checked bag charges make sense–as David has observed, probably one third of passengers do not check bags, so why should they have to pay to subsidize the cost for everyone else? I accept the free beverages given on my flights because they are free. We all used to accept (and then complain about) airplane meals when they were offered, and how many really missed them when they went away? Sure, we loved to complain about them being taken away, but let’s face it, we only ate them because they were free. It makes a lot more sense now, to only provide meals to people who want to buy them–and make the meals worth eating! I’ve had some rather tasty meals on my favorite airline–yes, I paid for them, but I only had to pay for what I wanted–I did not have to pay to subsidize meals for everyone else.
        Continental was the last major US airline to provide free food on board. Did they lose significant passengers when they discontinued food service a year or so ago? No.

        It’s clear that if all airlines have to include one bag for free that they will bake the cost in to everyone’s tickets. I would expect that a certain airline that already does this would love to see this law defeated since it would erode part of their stated value proposition. Contrary to David’s assesment, I believe that this law would actually cause all the airlines to pass the cost along since it would apply to all of them simultaneously.
        Be careful what you wish for–and what you chose to regulate–look at how many more flights are cancelled to avoid the tarmac delay fines mandated a year or so ago. Yes–ground delays are way down, but cancellations are way up. This is what the industry predicted (and yes, it did have the ability to fulfill its own prophecy), but let’s face it–the fines are doing exactly what they were intended to do (and what they were predicted to do). Many of us have been on delayed flights that–in today’s environment–would have been cancelled. Which is better: a cancelled flight or a delayed flight that still gets you there?

        Why don’t we pass a law to do away with the hidden charges that represent 10-50% or more of a US Domestic ticket? These are the various taxes and fees imposed by airports, cities, state and the federal government on tickets.

  7. David,
    Somehow Southwest includes 2 free bags in their fares which if you book correctly are often the lowest on the route. They are still almost always profitable. Other carriers often match the WN fare but have baggage fees etc.

    If you are a frequent flier have a special credit card etc. your bags may “fly free” but the infrequent flier gets hit with a cost far greater Han the advertised price. The “find lowest fare” sites don’t (can’t) take additional fees into account so they became traps for the unaware.

    TRANPARENCY is the answer and may even be covered under FTC regulations now. The consumer can then make a valid choice and the marketplace would determine and force what the consumer wants.

    How helpful has the Airline Passenger Rights. Act really been? TSA costs, exorbitant taxes, airport fees etc. have all been hidden costs in the true cost of travel. Recently because I had to take a “direct” rather than a non-stop flight I paid almost twice in airport fees. Higher cost for more inconvenience :-(.

  8. Most interesting reading regarding airline baggage fees…
    I have a question, If airlines previously gave (gave) checked baggage free as part of the Ticketed Price, then when they began charging for this service, why didn’t they offer a discounted ticket fee for no checked bag? Just a thought..

  9. Carleton MacDonald

    Airlines should be encouraging people to check bags and minimize carry-on. Fewer carry-on items on a plane means faster boarding, faster deplaning, and less of a safety hazard. The airlines should want an uncluttered cabin; it is to their advantage, as they can speed up turnaround times and lessen the risk of injury. And the way to do that is to have as much passenger baggage in the hold as possible. To that end not only should two pieces of checked baggage be free but there should be greater restriction on carry-on items. Even those with one small item that isn’t checked will find this to their advantage as they will be much more likely to find room for it, and will, with all the other passengers, enjoy a quicker boarding and deplaning process. For that reason it is perfectly justifiable to build the cost of checked baggage into fares. And yes, the government, as an enforcer of aviation safety, does have a voice in matters that affect safety.

  10. There are a couple of safety issues that the airlines and FAA/TSA seem to ignore. Whereas checked bags are weighed, carry-on bags aren’t. If you remember the US Airways Express crash back in 2003, the NTSB concluded that a contributing factor to the crash was that the plane was overweight and out of balance, because standard weights for passengers and carry-on bags were out of date.

    It seems to me that the margin of safety would improve, if the number of bags that are weighed and put in the cargo hold increased, especially on smaller airpplanes such as Embrears and Canadairs. It’s common for Embrear 135/140/145 operators to bump checked bags and even passengers, if the fuel requirement for a flight are high. Yet, if a person gate checks his bag, the carrier is merely using the FAA standard, which may be way off for a passenger who travels heavy.

    Let’s not forget that checked bags go through a scanner that is similar to a CT scanner used in hospitals. It’s superior in bag screening to the x-ray machines that are commonly used at security checkpoints in the terminal. If the number of checked bags increases, that means more bags undergo a thorough screening, and TSA screeners in the terminals don’t have as many bags going through the x-ray machines.

    1. Kent,
      In case you haven’t experienced this, you will be pleased to know the passenger and carry-on weights are actually checked occasionally. I experienced this back in March boarding a Delta SFO-NRT flight, and the gate personnel explained it was a random FAA check to see if the standards were near the reality.

      I agree with the reasoning of fewer carry-ons. My new “home” airport is served only by RJ-class aircraft, so any carry-on larger than a briefcase winds up in the cargo hold and I have learned how to pack appropriately. It makes boarding on the larger planes SO much easier, it is indeed surprising the airlines don’t mandate that process.

      Oh wait. The less luggage we check, the more air freight they can move (wink).

  11. Other than pandering to voters during what will be a difficult year for incumbents, I wonder whether separate fees (baggage, seats, meals, blankets, etc.) are not subject to some or all taxes, thus Washington is missing out on revenue opportunities. If the airlines are forced to include checking at least one bag, many will raise ticket prices and therefore more tax will be collected. Call me paranoid but I’m looking for an ulterior motive.

  12. My understanding of the finances of the add-on fees is the extra fees such as checked baggage and fuel surcharges are not subject to the federal airline taxes.

    It would certainly be better operationally and safety wise for one or two checked bags to be free and to strictly limit carry on size and much more comfortable for passengers.

  13. At least two free bags should be allowed at check-in and one reasonable carry on as well. I have a number of allergies and while I can carry on my medication, I need to check normal sized liquids for personal hygiene as I have to use certain products for shampoo, lotions, etc. these now go into checked luggage. Thus I am either paying fees for checked bags beyond the first or need to carryon my clothing and laptop.
    This past month, I flew one round trip for 5 days and there were a number of baggage problems with packing. earlier I took the train for a similar length of stay. My luggage went with me, I took the same items but could access them at all times which was convenient for both work and comfort. oved it and now plan on looking for train travel whenever possible. Just wish we would catch up with the rest of the world with comfortable and frequent trains.

    i support the legislation.

  14. Hi David, as a retired airline PR person, I know exactly where the airlines are coming from – making every attempt to gain the extra revenue in light of rising fuel and staff costs.
    But on international flights, carriers offer the first bag free. So why not all the USA domestics? Obviously JetBlue and Southwest do it, and reap the benefits with a high volume of passengers and continued brand loyalty.
    Since I retired a few months ago, I have traveled many times on domestic flights, and it just irks me to pay the $25 for my single bag. It’s really the principle, not so much the $25, although for many people, it is a lot and comes out of their destination expenditures. At the very least, – the first bag should be free of charge.

  15. I disagree. Let the marketplace decide – not the government. Look at EayJet, RyanAir, etc. that charge for everything (even making a reservation) – but became very popular due to low cost despite crowded seats, bad customer service, fees, etc. And where do US airlines charge for using the toilet (as the article implies) and free water?? Is this just undue hype? Let’s be fair. Does a bag cost as much to haul as a person – likely not. But the handling, check in process, etc. of a bag does cost something. Where a person with carry-on is cheaper (and many people do without check in bags).

    Should taxes (as article says) be shown in advertised price? Very rare in US that the price you see in a store or restaurant is inclusive of sales tax — or do you live in a state that requires that??

    I think most of the flying public knows about bag fees, etc. It is not a big surprise for most. No, let us have the govenment that wrote our Tax Code write rules about airline charges — what a joke.

  16. As a frequent traveller, I plan my trips in such a manner that I rarely check bags. I don’t mind paying for checking a bag when I need to but when I don’t, I dont want to participate or contribute to the service provided by customers that do check a bag. The bag check process is complicated, automatic belts to move baggage to sort rooms, employees that do nothing but load/unload and deliver bags to the aircraft and baggage claim, not to mention transfer bags between carriers or to other flights. If I am not checking bags, why should I pay to support this stream of business within the airline?

    The legislation is absurd and I expect it will not muster the number of votes required to pass through both houses of Congress. Although with the current mindset of Congress, who can tell…

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