Image: Travelers at Heathrow
Kirsty Wigglesworth  /  AP
British Airways' decision to increase baggage fees will almost certainly give U.S. airlines added incentive to jump on the charge-for-checked-luggage bandwagon, contributor Rob Lovitt says.
By Travel writer contributor
updated 2/16/2007 6:45:56 PM ET 2007-02-16T23:45:56

How much clothing can you fit in your carry-on bag?

If new baggage fees just announced by British Airways take hold across the industry, you may want to find out.

British Airways (BA) started charging coach-class passengers extra fees to check a second bag on February 13. The fees range from £30 ($59) on domestic flights within the U.K. to a whopping £120 ($235) on long-haul international flights.

The good news is that the new fees do not apply to flights between the U.K. and the U.S. The bad news, I’m afraid, is that the move will almost certainly give U.S. airlines added incentive to jump on the charge-for-checked-luggage bandwagon.

A slippery slope
“This is just the beginning,” says Terry Trippler, president of “Once you have that, how much of a jump is it to charge for all bags?”

Baby step is more like it. Remember when curbside checking was free? At most airports, the service now costs $2 per bag. And just this week, Spirit Airlines, the Florida-based discount carrier, announced that passengers checking a second bag would incur a $10 fee. If other airlines don’t follow suit, I’ll eat my onboard Snack Box (after paying $5 for it, of course).

It’s all part of a trend toward selling bare-bones plane tickets and then charging for everything from checked baggage to advance seat assignments. And some airlines are taking it to extremes. Buy a so-called Tango ticket at Air Canada, for example, and you can pay $5 for an onboard meal voucher, spend another $15 to select a specific seat or, conversely, save $3–$5 if you forgo frequent-flier miles or checked baggage.

I understand the logic behind “unbundling” airfares, and paying for what you get. I also realize the airlines are still on shaky financial ground and need to cut costs wherever they can. But I can only hope that any airlines considering charging for checking baggage have thought through the ramifications and inevitable results.

Creative cramming
I already know what one result will be — some of the biggest, heaviest, most filled-to-bursting bags baggage handlers have ever seen. Most airlines have already lowered their maximum allowable limits from 70 to 50 pounds (charging $25 or more for any excess), but that won’t stop many travelers from squeezing two bags worth of stuff into one piece of luggage.

Video: Flight delays rocket in 2006 Look for more creative packing, too. Under BA’s new rules, passengers will not be charged for checked sporting equipment, even if it constitutes a second bag. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing some suspiciously swollen ski bags and golf bags coming down the baggage belt. And since infants are also allowed to check one bag free, I imagine a lot of diaper bags will get filled with more than Pampers and diaper wipes.

Of course, with no American carrier (other than Spirit) announcing similar plans, any speculation about specifics is just that, but it’s hard to believe that this isn’t the harbinger of things to come. “If people want cheap fares, they may have to pay more for extras,” says Ray Neidl, an airline analyst with Calyon Securities. “Bags are heavy. If you want to take your entire wardrobe, you’ll have to pay.”

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A losing proposition
The problem is that many passengers will do whatever they can to avoid the added cost, and that means one thing: more — and bigger — carry-on bags. If U.S. airlines start charging for checked luggage, you can bet the already tedious process of boarding is going to get a lot more frustrating.

“It’s going to put a lot more pressure on gate agents and flight attendants,” says Trippler, especially when passengers arrive at their gate with bags that turn out to be too big to carry on. “How are they going to know if it’s your second bag?” And, if several people show up with oversized bags, he notes, it will only increase the likelihood of a delayed departure.

Slideshow: Around the World And isn’t that just what we need in these days of full planes, skeleton crews and cutbacks in service? If charging for baggage is, indeed, the wave of the future, I suggest the airlines set the price high enough to offset the cost of lost business, disgruntled employees, and the potential spike in air-rage incidents.

Barring that, I have another idea. I see by the latest government statistics that U.S. airlines mishandled more than 4 million bags last year. There were certainly extenuating circumstances — the August 10 terror plot, December’s wicked weather — but that’s a lot of lost or misplaced luggage.

So, here’s the deal: You guys stop losing our bags and we’ll consider paying extra for bringing them along. Otherwise, get ready for some angry customers and some really big carry-on items.

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