Image: London travelers
Steve Parsons  /  AP
Passengers carry their luggage towards the departures area at London's Heathrow Airport. British Airways will soon charge passengers for carrying two bags.
msnbc.com news services
updated 2/8/2007 7:01:07 PM ET 2007-02-09T00:01:07

On the eve of Valentine's Day, British Airways will institute changes in baggage procedures, but travelers won't be feeling the love.

On its Web site, the airline details a new, "simpler" policy aimed to creating "the best possible airport experience before you fly."

The changes?

British Airways will begin limiting some of its long haul passengers to a single bag per passenger — and charging them 120 pounds ($236) per flight for every extra piece of luggage each way, the company said Thursday.

The change applies to passengers flying economy class to destinations outside North America, the Caribbean, Nigeria and Brazil. While passengers to destinations such as Europe and Asia were previously allowed as many bags as they wished, they would now be limited to one bag — and charged for the excess.

Domestic passengers would be charged 30 pounds ($59) for every bag beyond the first, while the price for extra bags taken to Europe would rise to 60 pounds ($118).

“This whole thing is about simplifying the excess baggage charge system, which only two percent of people paid anyway,” British Airways spokesman Paul Marston said. Passengers were previously charged various rates per excess kilogram, and Marston said that many would actually end up paying less under the new system.

Those with special needs may have extra charges waived at the discretion of check-in staff, he said.

Club World, World Traveller, and first class passengers would still be allowed to check in more than one bag. BA said it would offer a 30 percent discount to customers who prepay online.

The changes don't come as a total surprise to industry experts.

Last August, Tripso columnist and MSNBC.com contributor Charlie Leocha wrote a story predicting a similar change.

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Mr. Leocha wrote:

Some industry analysts say that domestic airlines handle as much in luggage weight as they do in passenger weight, and the Transportation Security Administration reports that more than 50 percent of its $6-something billion budget goes to baggage screening.

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Clearly, there’s money to be saved — and made — if the airlines can reduce checked baggage and charge extra for it at the same time. As “debundlings” go, luggage may prove more profitable than the late lamented in-flight meal.

Change is coming. The discussions are well along; in fact, luggage changes have been bandied about in boardrooms and revenue maximization meetings since the mid-1990s. The airline world is just waiting for the major airline with the most courage to take the first step. My guess is that all the legacy carriers will follow suit almost immediately, at least for domestic flights.

Air Canada, which moved more than 400,000 tons of checked baggage last year, is already testing online “Go Discount” fares, which offer added discounts to passengers who promise not to check their luggage or change their travel dates. Ryanair, in Europe, has been charging for checked luggage for years, and some passengers pay as much to bring their luggage as they do for their airline ticket.

Let’s face it, fuel costs are skyrocketing. Airlines are looking to save weight in every possible way, including using plastic forks and spoons, removing seatback phones and eliminating magazines. Lightening the luggage load would make a much bigger difference.

The airlines have already debundled food from most flights. They have debundled telephone ticketing from the sales process. Some have debundled exit-row seats, now charging extra for them. Others have reduced the luggage weight allowance from 70 pounds to 50 pounds. Some have eliminated blankets and pillows, and seats are squeezed closer together than at any time in history. The list of cost-cutting and fee-generating measures goes on and on.

Now the legacy airlines are seriously looking at the bare-bones Ryanair model, which is to strip the purchase of passage from point A to point B to the bare minimum: a seat on the airplane. Everything else becomes extra: luggage, food, drinks, pillows, blankets and occasional extra legroom. Even the barf bags may be on the debundling track (rumor has it that the airlines are exploring the sale of advertisements on the plastic-lined bags).

On a recent Air Traffic World Web cast, one speaker joked that the airlines should offer free passage for each passenger who ships two 50-pound bags to Chicago from Boston on the same flight. Charge freight rates for the luggage and let the passenger fly free.

Slideshow: Around the World If you check out the FedEx Web site, you’ll see what he means. The estimated cost of shipping two 50-pound suitcases is $358 for delivery the next morning and $341 for delivery the next afternoon. Even second-day delivery is priced at $213. And these quotes are for just one way.

Now look at the airfares. According to Orbitz, the fares from Boston to Chicago for flights a month in the future start at $212 round trip and max out at $432. When shipping two 50-pound suitcases to Chicago and back costs more than flying a passenger and the same two suitcases, something is clearly out of whack.

The current bottom line is undeniable: Airlines can extract huge cost savings by providing incentives for passengers to carry less luggage. The first steps have already been taken with the reduction of the free-luggage limit to 50 pounds. The next step, more than likely, will be to limit passengers to just one bag or to charge for extra bags.

My feeling is that a one-bag limit is the farthest the legacy airlines will go in the near future. But I predict that all checked luggage will incur fees in the slightly more distant future.

The Associated Press and Tripso.com's Charlie Leocha contributed to this story.

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