If you've been flying a while, you don't need me to tell you that it now seems to take twice as long to board an average plane than it did back in 1970. What's slowing us down? Bag fees.
We need the extra time to jam our money-saving carry-ons into the bins - bins that are increasingly cramped because many of us pack enough to clothe a family of five for a year. And it all trickles down: you now have to line up earlier to get on the plane, which means you have to drive to the airport earlier and on and on.
The good news is the airlines are taking responsibility for this! At least US Airways CEO Doug Parker is: "We created this problem by charging for checking [a bag]…people will do things to avoid paying that fee." They will indeed. Which brings us to the five stages of grief over airline fees.
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With apologies to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross…
Five Stages of Grief Over Airline Fees
We didn't want to believe it when American started charging for a 'first' checked-bag back in 2008; we figured it was a short term thing, that fees would disappear when the price of oil dropped. And drop it did, by more than a hundred bucks that year, but funny how the fees stayed put. Then we didn't want to believe any of the other airlines would join in, but they practically fell over each other in ensuing fee-frenzy. It even got to the point that US Airways charged for coffee and Cokes but sadly withdrew when no one else did except Spirit Airlines.
We got angry when there was no end to fees; that lowly $15 first bag fee quickly morphed into $25, but that was nothing compared to the 'reservation change fee' that now costs $150 on American, Delta, United and US Airways. Then Spirit really upped the ante in 2010 by charging up for carry-ons - and later pumped that up to $100 if you're foolish enough to wait to pay that fee at the gate.
And the hits just keep on coming; last year, United began charging $100 for a second checked-bag on European flights and US Airways quickly followed. Meanwhile, popular European discounter Wizz Air added a carry-on fee. What, did everyone suddenly realize the Olympics are coming?
Alaska Airlines added insult to injury earlier this year when it began experimenting with a do-it-yourself bag-tag system: you pay the fee for a checked-bag - and then do all the work. Worst part? It's not like bag fees are any kind of insurance policy; we still get no guarantee our bags will arrive when we do and it's interesting to note that it took a Dept. of Transportation (DOT) rule change to guarantee reimbursement of the fee if our bag is lost or our flight is canceled. And the airlines wonder why we don't love them.
Now, we try to strike deals: we'll fly JetBlue and Southwest for the free bags, and in exchange we'll pay JetBlue's $6 for a pillow and blanket, or Southwest's $5 WiFi charge on their planes that are so equipped. Or, we'll counter checked-bagged fees by over-packing carry-ons, and hope that we won't get hit with overweight carry-on charges (as much as $25 on Hawaiian). Or maybe we'll over-pack a single checked-bag and hope we don't get caught (American overweight charges cost as much as $200).
Now it dawns on us that fees aren't going away and there's nothing we can do about it. Occasionally we'll read about an airline that gets its comeuppance when it violates a DOT transparency rule about disclosing bag fees upfront - Mexican airline Volaris was recently hit with a $130,000 fine - but, we'd be a lot less depressed if someone could guarantee that fine won't be shoved back to us via higher ticket prices.
Airlines try to jolly us out of these moods by disguising fees with 'games' such as Etihad Airways' online auction for better seats (yes, you pay for this privilege) or KLM's Meet & Seat so you can find simpatico seatmates on Facebook (no fee but you pay by wading through endless legalese where you promise not to do anything nasty and your intended seatmate could still reject you).
For the most part, we accept that fees are here to stay; you only have to look at new figures from the Dept. of Transportation to understand this. Despite a drop in the number of passenger in the first quarter of this year, airlines collected more in bag fees - about $815 million - than in the fourth quarter of last year - $792 million.
Along with acceptance, though, we've learned to play the game: if we're close to elite status, we stay loyal to our airlines to ensure a flow of perks like free bags; we apply for the branded-credit cards that give us freebies like early boarding; we upgrade with miles instead of money; we fly JetBlue and Southwest for the baggage allowance; and we always, always pack light - or we should!
Finally, good news and bad news: Airlines are losing fewer bags - but should they be losing any in the first place? The bad news is, remember how US Airways CEO Parker said the airlines created the bin overload problem by charging checked-bag fees? There are only two solutions: getting rid of checked-bag fees or adding carry-on fees. Which way do you think they'll go?