Free drinks, no fees for gate-checking bags
Many airline passengers are avoiding checked-bag fees by taking carry-ons to the gate, where airlines are checking them at no charge.
Seattle Times travel writer
Imagine paying $25 to check your bag, then arriving at the gate to hear the agent offer a free drink coupon to anyone willing to let the airline check their carry-on — at no charge.
This happened on a Delta Air Lines flight from Minneapolis to Seattle recently. The flight was full. Flight attendants sensed there would be a battle for overhead space. Rather than risk delaying the flight, they took pre-emptive action and got lots of takers.
Are you fuming yet?
Maybe you're gloating, if you're one of those who figured out that the way to avoid paying a checked-bag fee is to take the bag to the gate and count on the airline running out of space.
Fixing the system
"There's something very broken here," says Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks, a consulting firm that advises airlines on ways to boost money earned from things other than ticket sales; i.e., fees, meals, drinks, etc. "Something has to give."
Airlines will either get serious about enforcing their one-carry-on-per-passenger rules or find other solutions, he predicts. Does that mean more will follow Spirit Airlines' model of charging for all baggage, checked and carry-on?
Not likely, given that lawmakers and passenger-rights groups probably would push back. Not that Spirit hasn't been successful. IdeaWorks estimates the airline is pulling in $50 million annually from carry-on fees ($20 to $40 per bag) while it continues to gain passengers by offering low fares.
Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu introduced legislation in Congress in November to protect travelers from excessive bag fees. If passed, the Airline Passengers BASICS Act would require airlines to allow one checked bag and one carry-on at no charge.
Landrieu says there's justification, given testimony by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano that checked-bag fees have boosted Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening costs by $260 million a year because so many people are taking carry-ons.
What to do?
It's doubtful anyone will force airlines to drop checked-bag fees. Changing the rules to reduce the size of carry-ons might help, but that's unlikely since everyone would have to buy new suitcases.
A more sensible solution is for airlines to study the policies of U.K. discount airlines easyJet and Ryanair.
They begin by enforcing the rules — one carry-on per passenger. Unlike in the U.S., that includes a personal item such as a purse or laptop.
If you bring more than one carry-on, easyJet will charge you $38 to check that piece at its airport service desk, and $60 if it has to be checked at the gate. Ryanair has a similar policy.
Couldn't U.S. airlines do much the same? There still would be no carry-on bag fees, only higher checked-bag fees for those who show up with carry-ons that don't fit and have to be stowed.
Most U.S. airlines restrict passengers to one 40-pound carry-on, no bigger that 22 x 14 x 9 inches, and one personal item.
Passengers have many good reasons for not checking bags; avoiding fees is only one. Lack of overhead storage isn't the problem. The problem is people who carry on too much stuff. Full-sized backpacks and overstuffed shopping bags are not "personal items."
Seventy-two percent of those answering a survey by the U.S. Travel Association said that one of their top frustrations with flying had to do with "people who bring too many carry-on bags through the security checkpoint."
I think airlines could ease the tensions by enforcing their own rules. One carry-on bag. One personal item. What do you think? Let me know. I'll share some of your comments in a future column. In the meantime, enjoy the free drinks.
Have a question or comment about travel? Contact Carol Pucci: email@example.com. On Twitter @carolpucci.
About Travel Wise
Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', Carol Pucci covers everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. Her column runs each Sunday in the Travel section.