April 6, 2010 -- Spirit Airlines today announced that it would start charging passengers for carry-on luggage, the first airline to impose such a fee on the flying public.
On all Spirit flights starting Aug. 1, any carry-on item placed in an overhead bin will cost passengers $30. Members of the airline's "fare club," who pay $39.95 a year for discounts, will pay $20.
Passengers who don't pay the $30 fee in advance -- either online or at the ticket counter -- will get whacked with a $45 fee at the gate just for bringing their carry-on bag on the plane.
Spirit and most other major airlines already charge passengers for each checked bag, but this new surcharge is the latest -- and the most radical -- example of airlines charging passengers extra money by "unbundling" fees that were previously included in the price of a ticket.
"This seems a step too far, but I would have said that about a lot of the unbundling behavior that has gone on," said Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst and consultant based in Port Washington, N.Y.
Spirit will still allow passengers to bring onboard smaller "personal items" such as purses, briefcases, backpacks or laptops that fit under the seats for free.
The new $30 carry-on fee is actually more expensive than Spirit's $25 fee for checked luggage, signaling that the airline is trying to get as many bags out of the cabin as possible.
Since airlines started charging for checked bags two to three years ago, passengers have tried to cram more and more bags into the cabin to avoid the fees.
There is now often a mad dash to be the first on a plane. Overhead bins fill up before all of the passengers have boarded, and the remaining bags must be checked at the gate. That delays flights and costs the airlines money. Flight attendants have also reported cuts, bruises, sprains and strains as a result of dealing with all the additional items in the overhead bins.
"It's a bold move, certainly," said Travelocity Senior Editor Genevieve Shaw Brown. "It's hard to say whether or not any of the big carriers will follow, but it is certain that they are going to be watching this really closely to see what if any kind of success it has."
"This will reduce the number of carry-on bags, which will improve in-flight safety and efficiency by speeding up the boarding and deplaning process, all of which ultimately improve the overall customer experience," Spirit's chief operating officer Ken McKenzie said in a statement. "Bring less; pay less. It's simple."
Spirit Airlines to Charge for Carry-On Bags
Mann said paying more for the self-service, carry-on bag doesn't initially make sense, but in essence passengers are paying more money not to wait for their bags on the carousel.
"I would pay more to have the bag closer to me and not have the bag lost or damaged by the carrier," Mann said. "I spent 20 years working in the industry and I learned you never, never want to check your bag."
"For the convenience, it makes logical sense," he added. "It's just so distasteful in the logic."
Mann said Spirit is one of the "most aggressive" airlines in charging for additional services. Spirit charges passengers for advanced seat assignments. While some airlines have started doing that for window, aisle or extra-legroom seats, Spirit charges for any seat, including the dreaded middle seat.
"You ought to be paid to sit in the middle seat, let alone pay to sit there," Mann said
Mann said the ideal model for passengers is Air Canada, where passengers get $5 back if they don't want to check a bag.
By charging this new fee Spirit can lower its base fares slightly -- not necessarily enough to supplant the new fee -- which means the airlines flights will show up with lower fares on travel search engines, Mann said.
"It's become very, very confusing and basically games the fare search engines out there," he said. "Passengers don't necessarily think logically. They just tend to pick the lowest fare."
Travelocity's Brown said some passengers "might be a little bit more tolerant of something like this" if the airline is offering "rock bottom fares," adding that this could make the boarding process more pleasant. Currently, she said, the No. 1 complaint people have about boarding is other passengers whose bags are too large to fit in the overhead bins.
How Far Will Airlines Go?
George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com, also said this will help planes load faster and wondered how far airlines will take this process.
"Who will be the first to eliminate airport check-in counter staff?" he asked, "Forcing passengers to show up at the airport with a pre-printed boarding pass and pre-paid luggage fees, then proceed to a conveyor belt, show their fee payment, and drop their bags themselves on a conveyor belt - and proceed to the gate. No human interaction necessary."