Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bill would scrap checked baggage fee

Fliers hate baggage fees, and the long lines at airport security screening that are made worse by passengers carrying on more bags than they did in the past.

So just before the the busiest air travel day of the year, Sen. Mary Landrieu has introduced legislation to try to put limits on airlines charging for checking in bags.

Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, has two different proposals. One would prohibit airlines from charging for the first checked bag.

The other would allow the fees, but raise taxes on airlines that charge for baggage. That proposal would raise the $260 million that the Transportation Security Administration estimates it needs to handle the extra carry-on bags going through the screening process.

The TSA estimates that the number of checked bags has decreased by 26% since 2009, while carry-on bags increased by 87 million in roughly the same time period.

"Many airlines consider checking a bag not to be a right, but a privilege -- and one with a hefty fee attached," said Landrieu. She said her first legislative proposal "will guarantee passengers one checked bag without the financial burden of paying a fee, or the headache of trying to fit everything into a carry-on."

The second, she added, would at least make sure taxpayers are made whole for the stresses more congestion at security places on the system.

Not surprisingly, the airline industry's trade group objects to both proposals.

The Air Transport Association says its own survey shows only one in four passengers now pay a baggage fee, either by carrying-on bags, choosing an airline that won't charge a fee or having the fee waived due to the credit card they use or the frequent flier perks they receive.

Southwest Airlines (LUV, Fortune 500) doesn't charge for bags and has made the lack of a fee part of its marketing campaign. Jet Blue (JBLU) doesn't have any fees on the first bag. On the other extreme, low-fare carrier Spirit Airlines (SAVE) charges even for carry-on bags.

"Customers do have choice today," said Steve Lott, spokesman for the association. "In terms of fairness, you pay for the services you get. Under what the senator is suggesting, some people would be paying for a service they aren't using."

Airline consultant Michael Boyd said he believes if the fees were banned, fares would rise instead. That could cost customers even more due to the excise tax they pay on fares and not on fees.

"I hate the fees like everyone else," said Boyd. "When American Airlines (AMR, Fortune 500) initiated a bag fee, I thought they were doomed. But the consumer didn't blink an eye, they just got out their wallet."

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