Will Airline Passengers Have to Pay for Saving Money?

Homeland Security says carry-ons are costing taxpayers $250 million.

March 8, 2011, 11:44 AM

March 8, 2011 — -- You know how to save a quick 50 bucks on airfare? Simple. Just use a carry-on.

Or fly JetBlue or Southwest, where you can still get a free checked-bag. Most otherairlines charge $25 each way (and the nimble minds at Spirit Airlines charge you for checked bags and carry-ons, so watch your wallet on that discount carrier).

If you follow my savings tip then supposedly you and everyone else in the carry-onbrigade will wind up costing the Transportation Security Administration an additional $260million dollars a year in gate screening costs. And who do you think will pay for that? We will,one way or another.

A quick dive into that hefty amount has me scratching my head.

For more travelnews and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

Today's airline passengers are doing the smart thing by packing light and usingcarry-on bags. This trend picked up steam once American Airlines became the first of the old-line airlines to start charging for checked-bags in 2008 (a mere $15 back then).

But Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano now says all these carry-ons are creating more work for the TSA, to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars annually.

"There is more to inspect at the gate and so forth," Napolitano recently told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.

Wait just a second. I've got a few questions -- namely, where is that astronomical figure coming from?

As the TSA reminds us over and over again, all bags are screened -- checked and carry-on. Is Ms. Napolitano suggesting that more eyeballs are required to screen carry-ons than checked bags?

The TSA website says it has 48,000 screeners at U.S. airports, though Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure cites 67,000 employees; he is probably including Federal Air Marshals, TSA inspectors, management and the like. That sounds like plenty of people, and after all, the Department of Homeland Security is the third largest Cabinet department (after Defense and Veteran Affairs).

That brings to mind a quote from Thomas Macaulay: "Empires which branch out widely are often more flourishing for a little timely pruning."

Pruning apparently isn't in the cards, though logic would dictate a simple shift in personnel from the area of fewer bags (checked-luggage) to the area of more bags (carry-on lines), right?

At the very least, Ms. Napolitano, show us some good old Ross Perot pie charts that substantiate the difference in these labor costs.

And you might want to put aside some money for remedial training after last week's embarrassing incident involving a passenger who managed to board his JetBlue flight at JFKwith box cutters in his carry-on.


Next question: More people are using carry-on bags, yes, but are there more total bags today?Consider that in 2007, there were 835 million airline passengers in U.S. airports. But by 2010,that number had shrunk to 719 million, down 16 percent. Surely all those extra flyers backin 2007 -- an additional 116 million of them who are now packing lighter -- required more gate time than today's thinned out herd.

Final question: Who would pay for the additional funds for the TSA and their carry-onconundrum? Homeland Security Secretary didn't touch that one, though the AP quoteda senator asking whether airlines should help make up for some of the extra costs, perhapsfrom "the profits that they make from these fees."

At the moment, airlines pick up the aviation security costs (capped at 2000 levels) above the revenue collected from passengers via the Sept. 11 ticket fee of up to $10 round-trip. Presumably this isn't enough to cover total costs, as TSA is asking for an increase in passenger "airport security fees".

By the way, an increase in this fee has been proposed almost every year since 2002, but Congress has yet to OK one.

So maybe it'll come in the form of another user-fee; if that's the case, chances are you or I willpay. Or will we?

Between airfare hikes, airline/government fees and airport hassles, many short haul-travelers are now hitting the road instead of boarding a plane.

Face it, one-hour flights now take about the same amount of time to drive, if you include getting to the airport, parking and waiting in all those lines. And unlike the automotive and banking industries, nobody offered the nation's carriers a bailout.; and passengers sure aren't getting one. So where does that leave us? Up in the air.

If I could make one suggestion to the TSA, it would be this: tell us in plain English what youneed and why. More transparency please -- and fewer sound bites.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.

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