Airline baggage fees hit a record $1.3 billion in the first three months of the year, according to federal statistics.
A dozen years ago, airlines collected a modest $464,284 from passengers who wanted to check a bag.
Last year it was close to $4.8 billion, according to the federal government.
The airline industry argues that the fees allow it to keep ticket prices down and that travelers who don’t check any bags shouldn’t be charged an all-in-one ticket price that assumes bags will be checked.
“Even when ancillary fees are included, the price of air travel remains historically low, which is why we are seeing consumers take to the skies this summer in record numbers,” said Vaughn Jennings, of Airlines for America, a group that represents several major carriers.
“Airlines offer a variety of price combinations enabling customers to choose which optional services best meet their needs, including whether to check a bag.”
Critics contend, however, that even major airlines want to offer prices that appear to be bargains, when they anticipate charging a myriad additional fees.
Some aviation experts suggest that airlines prey on the occasional traveler rather than the more experienced flier, and they predict it will get worse.
Erin Bowen, chairman of the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, says airlines are “obfuscating on purpose.”
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“You give a phrase like ‘basic economy’ to boomers and retirees. What sort of term is basic economy?” Bowen said. “Then they’re going to get to the airport and go, ‘What do you mean I don’t get a checked bag? What do you mean I don’t get to pick my seat?’”
Her husband, Brent Bowen, a dean at Embry-Riddle and for almost 30 years the author of the Airline Quality Rating, said travelers are stuck.
“We’re captive hostages to this,” he said. “We have to travel with bags. (Airlines) decide, ‘Oh, we’re not performing well enough financially, so let’s raise some fees.’”
Bowen said he recently finished teaching a class on airline operations.
“We looked deeply into the impact on senior citizens,” he said. “You get to the airport, you have to tag your own bag after you go through a complicated (bag tagging) computer screen, you have to figure out which line to get in to turn over your bag, then how to get to your gate.”
He said he priced several airlines — American, low-cost Spirit and Southwest — recently for a flight between Phoenix and Dallas.
“When you add up the fees (charged) by Spirit for a normal family trip, it’s the same as flying on American,” he said.
“The lowest-cost tickets mean nothing. They’re all about the same, but Southwest has rolled their fees into the ticket price.”
Particularly as low-cost airlines compete with the major carriers, and as low-cost European airlines infiltrate the U.S. market, both Bowens say charging added fees will proliferate.
It’s buyer beware as big airlines embrace ‘basic economy’ fares
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“I project that we’re going to see a continuous increase in fees to the point where every airline is like Spirit, which has a fee for everything,” Brent Bowen said.
“The ultralow cost carriers in Europe are charging lower ticket prices just to get customers, but they charge fees for everything, from carry-on to water to exorbitant baggage fees, paper ticket fees, seat selection fees and all of that.”
Erin Bowen, an aviation psychologist, says she gets calls when passenger disruptions make news.
“You’re really setting up a system where people board the plane confused, anxious, disoriented,” she said.
“And in a lot of cases that translates into angry outbursts.”