Posted by: Korry | March 1, 2012

Making Bag Fees Fair

On Tuesday, I wrote that the truth about bag fees is that you asked for them! Thanks largely to internet websites that help consumers find the lowest possible fair, airlines introduced a plethora of new fees–bags, food, entertainment, etc.–largely to increase revenue they’ve lost to “cheap tickets.” These new fees are a very controversial subject for most travelers like Bill, who passionately pushed back on my piece (you should definitely check out his comment and my reply if you haven’t already). But more than the fees themselves, Bill  said:

“The real issue is one of transparency. Customers have no idea how the airlines calculate ticket prices….When the base price makes no sense, when we’re charged $25 for a bag or $15 to sit in the aisle, when we had never seen that before, of course there’s going to be complaints. And when it appears the quality is dropping to school bus with wings status, but the prices are still the same or higher, people are going to complain.”

Bill, I think you–and the travelers who undoubtedly feel as you do–are spot on: the problem is fairness! We can stomach winning or losing in sports so long as the game is played fairly. We can handle the disappointment that comes with being passed over for a promotion at work if we feel like the selection process wasn’t simply rigged or a formality. We can even pony over additional cash for airline bag fees if they’re transparent and fair…and here’s how.

Unfortunately, the current setup doesn’t seem to be that fair. If you travel on a regional jet where the overhead bins aren’t big enough to accommodate most bags, you check your bag at the plane’s door and the ground crew returns your bag to you at the same spot after you park at your destination. But then you walk across the terminal and get on a main line flight on a larger plane and if you’re not on board before the bins fill up you will probably get your bag checked at the door again…only this time you will pick it up in baggage claim, not at the doorway upon arrival.

And don’t even get me started about people who either carry on too many bags or carry on bags that are clearly over the size limit. Or what about the guy or gal who has one carry on bag plus a personal item (purse, laptop, etc.) but chooses to put both in the overhead so he doesn’t have to put one of the items under the seat in front of him? For the record, if you do these things, you deserve the scorn of virtually every other traveler. Why? Because it’s not fair play.

To make bag fees fair, travelers need to know the rules and the airline needs to incentivize travelers to follow them. And if all that fails, there needs to be “officials” ensuring fair play along the way…gate agents, flight attendants or even more ideally, the TSA themselves.

I’m sure many airlines are working on fixes to these problems since they have to know how upset the lack of consistency and fairness makes travellers, but here are four of my suggestions.

1. Make the fees transparent. This should be a no brainer. When you purchase a ticket, you should clearly and easily be able to see that checked bags cost extra, even if it’s just a simple statement saying something to the effect “Checked bags not included.”

2. Make the rules uniform. If you can “gate check” a bag on a small plane and get it back in the jetway upon arrival, you should be able to do the same on a bigger plane. Most passengers who carry on don’t want to check their bag. They don’t mind (too much) giving it up at the plane if they know they’re going to get it back after the flight. But I find there to be something wrong with checking a bag at the plane’s door only to give it back to the customer in baggage claim, especially if I follow all the size rules. I realize this is a manpower issue for the bigger planes, but something needs to be done. This isn’t consistent and it isn’t fair.

3. incentivize travelers to check their bags at the ticket counter instead of at the plane’s door. Right now the incentive is to avoid the bag fee by carrying on. They fill bags as full as they can get, possibly even in bags bigger than the limits, and figure that if they can just get past security then the worst case will be they have to gate check the bag for no charge. In order to prevent this, airlines need to devise a way to incentivize travelers to check at the counter. Maybe this is in the form of a penalty for bags that are not of appropriate carry on size or weight. For instance, if you check a bag before security you pay one fee. Then when you get to the gate your bag is checked for size and weight. If it’s over the limit, you pay a higher fee.

4. Devise a better policing system. Right now, no one wants to be the bad guy. The TSA, from what I understand, won’t agree to police the size of checked bags. At the gate, the agents are trying to get everyone boarded and close out the flight. They’re not measured on how many oversized carry ons they prevent from being boarded; they’re measured by whether or not the plane goes out on time. So if things get busy, they have no big incentive to stop the oversize bag from going down the jetway…that will be the flight attendant’s problem. But then the flight attendant is trying to get everyone seated and ready for the flight. They can’t possibly watch whether every passenger follows the rules to the T by placing their carry on above and their personal item under the seat. So the bins fill up faster than they need to…and more bags get gate checked than need to. To stop oversize or overweight bags from getting on board, the airlines should ensure each gate has an easy device to check bag size and weight. Too big or too heavy? Pay a fee. And once on board the flight, how about incentivizing passengers to police each other with a complementary drink or even a voucher for one free checked bag on a future flight? The passengers are ultimately the ones who are stuck “paying the tab” so lets give them an incentive, too.

It’s a tough issue all the way around. The airlines see this new revenue as helping to keep them in the black. They save by needing fewer employees to handle the bags, fewer trucks to move the bags, less maintenance on those trucks and fewer mishandled bags that need delivered on the airline’s dime…not to mention that the airline pays simple income tax, not the additional ticket taxes levied on every ticket sold.

Consumers deserve a better and fairer system for dealing with bag fees. There shouldn’t be any surprises. The fees should be transparent. And most of all, the system should be fair.

What do you think the airlines should do to make the bag fees more fair?

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