Posted by: Jerry Garrett | January 19, 2010

Bag Grab: Secret Ways Airlines Jack Luggage Fees

Which bag exceeds the FAA's 22-inch carry-on limit? The 24-inch rollaboard on the left. Which two did American demand to check? If you guessed the 22-incher in the middle, and the 20-inch bag on the right, you would be correct. The 24-incher flew free. (Photo by the Bag Bandit)

“Anyone found to have three carry-on bags – I know some of you found ways to get three through security – anyone with three bags will be denied boarding,” said a U.S. Airways boarding gate agent, in a ruthless tone. “For the next five minutes, I’m going to offer ‘bag amnesty’ to anyone with three bags to come up here, and check them, and you will not be denied boarding. Come on, give it up.”

This heart-warming little customer service vignette took place recently at the Fort Lauderdale airport. I almost could not believe my ears. Almost.

It is becoming harder to find anything, however, that airlines try to pull these days unbelievable.

But the lengths (or is it “depths”) to which some airlines are going to pump up baggage fees is scandalous. Of course, no one is doing anything about it. Airline passengers seem to have no right to fight back.

How big a moneymaker are bag fees for airlines? Hey, it is now more than $2 billion (with a “B”) a year! And the rate at which this bag grab for cash is growing, by the end of 2010, it could easily be a $3 billion “industry within an industry”.

American Airlines, one of the industry’s bag fee pioneers, makes the most money off bag fees. And they just announced this week they are hiking fees again – from $20 to $25 per bag. (Kudos to Southwest Airlines, who doesn’t charge baggage fees – and is losing about $500 million a year by not doing so.) Delta Air Lines and USAirways are other carriers raking in big bucks from baggage.

Think your airfare was cheap? Try adding $60 each way for two bags to your tab. Ouch! It adds up. (A contrarian view here.)

Fees are fees, right? But how did American Airlines get to be the industry leader in charging bag fees? By being damned aggressive. By being at least borderline unethical. And, in my experience, by bending if not breaking the law.

Here are some egregious examples I have witnessed lately:

At LAX, American has somehow managed to get TSA employees to intercept passengers in security lines, and tell them their bags are too big to go through security. That is baloney. And it is not the TSA’s job to pimp for American Airlines on bag fees. (This doesn’t happen at other TSA locations, with other airlines, in other LAX terminals, in my experience.) Roving American employees (reported to be outside contractors hired by the airline, and intentionally dressed to resemble TSA workers) also try and catch passengers before they go up the stairs or escalators to the security lines.

American has carry-on baggage racks that purport to show the maximum legal size for carry-on luggage. The template they use is smaller than the FAA’s allowance of up to 22-inch rollaboards. In fact, in one recent instance I witnessed, a 20-inch rollaboard did not fit an American carry-on bracket. Agents force passengers to check anything that won’t fit the template – ka-ching! – which makes more bag money for the airline.

I’ve noticed agents tend to pick on women, young people and others who don’t look like savvy or experienced fliers. You know, people who don’t know better and/or who won’t push back. Well-dressed business travelers, and AAdvantage Gold, Silver or Platinum members (who American can’t yet charge for bags), always seem to have “right-sized” bags. Funny how I never get hassled about my 24-inch rollaboard!

Is this fair? Well, Crusader Rabbit, do you want to be the one who risks a scene at the airport, to stand up for the rights of oppressed passengers? Interference with airline employees can be pretty broadly interpreted.

How far will the airlines go, to jack up bag fees? Who’s stopping them?

When it comes to making money, the airlines mean business!

Jerry Garrett

January 19, 2010


  1. I have never been told to check my FAA approved- sized bag on Delta or United flights but the same bag was denied as a carry on a recent American flight. It felt really wrong. Especially when I got onto the plane and saw the luggage bins were of course big enough to accommodate my bag, and there were other bags larger than mine in the bin. It is an arbitrary system, inconsistent, and unevenly applied. At what point will American get that it is appalling customer service.

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