Happy Birthday, Baggage Fees

PHOTO: Baggage Fee Turns FiveGetty Images
The airline baggage fee hits five year mark.

What's the most annoying part of travel? Most people rip into airline fees. But not everyone.

The topic came up with a college kid recently but when fees were mentioned, the kid looked puzzled. It took me a moment before I got it: Kids today expect to be charged for any and everything on an airplane. It's all they've ever known!

The rest of us who mourn the days of fee-free flying, well - too bad. These extra charges have now been institutionalized. The good news is, it's time to break out the cake and ice cream and say happy birthday, bag fees.

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Hard to believe but we just hit the fifth anniversary of first checked-baggage fees. The dubious honor of setting this irksome precedent goes to American Airlines which started it all back in May of 2008.

This then-amazing development was reported with the kind of crazed zeal usually displayed by tabloids hot on the trail of a Kardashian birth. I remember one post on the new fee that asked, "What are they thinking?" That sounds so naïve. What they were thinking was how to make more money and they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. I immediately predicted others would jump on the bandwagon and by year's end, all legacy carriers were charging for first bags. Today only two airlines remain holdouts: JetBlue and Southwest.

And you've got to wonder just how much longer they can hold out because they're missing out on millions. Make that billions. Total fee revenue last year alone reaped $5.5 billion for United, about half that for Delta and nearly $2 billion for American. Even Southwest with its two free bags took in enough in fees to land it firmly in the Billionaire's Club.

That's the rest of the story. Once the dam burst with first checked-bag fees, a flood of others followed. The cascade included fees for pillows and peanuts, sodas and seats, baggage delivery and baggage-in-bulk. Want to board early? No problem but there is a fee for that.

It's easy for flyers to get confused: You pay for early boarding to find bin space for the carry-on you're using (to avoid the checked-bag fee) then find out your airline charges more for carry-ons than a big suitcase. Reminds me of a birthday party game - you know, musical chairs.

Worst fee of all? No question, the dreaded change fee. On some airlines, you'll now pay as much as two hundred bucks to change a travel date or change a flight time. It's gotten so high that in some cases, it's not worth making a change; just eat the ticket and start all over again. If you don't fly much, this may seem crazy to you but all I can say is, be sure you can fly on the dates you pay for or buy the refundable airfare but that's expensive, too. Example: A flight from Baltimore to Houston in Aug. on AirTran cost a non-refundable $302 but if you want the option of changing your mind, the refundable ticket will cost more than a thousand bucks. That's one heck of a gotcha and I'm not singling out any one airline; it's a widespread practice.

Here's comes the "on other hand" part. Have you checked the price of oil lately? A barrel of crude has been over the $100 mark for weeks now, which reminds me of 2008 which the price came within a knife's blade of $150. The airlines were hurting and needed the money to survive and fees kept them going. Now they need the money to be profitable.

Well, it's the American way, right? Look at Alaska Airlines. Investors are delighted the carrier is raising its bag and change fees; those guys had fallen behind the times by charging a paltry $20 per bag. What the heck, another $5 isn't going to kill us, especially since Alaska is a little different from all the others.

The difference has to do with guarantees. There are none. Fees mean zip to passengers in terms of making sure your bag travels with you since bags still get lost.

At least Alaska offers some kind of return: If your Samsonite doesn't reach the baggage claim area within 20 minutes of your flight parking at the gate, you get a $20 discount toward your next flight (or 2,000 miles in Alaska's loyalty program).

That's nice but it doesn't disguise the fact that your bag is still missing. Oh, well. Happy Birthday, bag fees. Now if only the airlines would quit playing pin-the-tail-on-the-passengers.