Image: Spirit Airlines
Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images file
Low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines made the first — and unpopular — move to charge for carry-on baggage.
updated 4/18/2010 1:36:15 PM ET 2010-04-18T17:36:15

In a remarkable gesture to fee-weary air travelers, five major U.S. airlines are committing to actually not charge a fee for something — the sacred carry-on bag.

The announcement Sunday comes despite the fact that some of those same airlines are expected to report first-quarter losses next week amid significantly higher fuel prices and the beating they took from the heavy February snowstorms. Add-on fees for things like checked bags, pillows and food are a key revenue stream for them.

For 26 large U.S. airlines, so-called ancillary fee revenue accounted for 6.9 percent of their total operating revenue in the third quarter of 2009, up from 4.1 percent a year earlier, the most recently available government data shows.

But major carriers risk alienating customers if they follow Spirit Airlines' lead and impose a fee on carry-on bags. The small Florida airline in August will begin charging customers up to $45 to place a bag in an overhead bin.

Other fees haven't stopped people from flying, but many of those fees can be avoided. It would be hard for many travelers to avoid a carryon bag fee.

"We believe it is something that's important to our customers and they value, and we will continue making that available to them at no charge," American Airlines spokesman Roger Frizzell said.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer said Sunday that American, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, US Airways and JetBlue Airways each have committed to him that they would not institute fees for carry-on bags. He said he was hopeful other carriers would follow suit.

Notably absent from the list was Continental Airlines, which is said to be in merger talks with United.

It wasn't immediately clear how long the airlines had pledged not to charge for carry-ons.

Flying the fee-filled skiesFrizzell couldn't say, and a spokesman for Delta declined to comment.

Schumer said he planned to meet with Spirit Airlines leadership in the coming week.

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He will have an uphill battle changing Spirit's mind, however.

Ben Baldanza, Spirit's president and CEO, told The Associated Press on Sunday that his airline still plans to go forward with its carryon bag fee.

"Our plan was never predicated on anyone matching us," Baldanza said. "The fact that other people are saying they won't has never changed our view that this is right."

He said the decision by the five major carriers actually puts pressure on those airlines because Spirit has lowered its fares more than the price of the new fee.

"We knew we took a risk with this strategy, but we believe on balance it's Video: Passengers 'diSpirited' over bag fees one that our customers will buy into," Baldanza said.

Schumer and five other Democratic senators — Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey — are supporting legislation that would tax airlines if they charged carry-on bag fees.

Schumer said the legislation would move forward until it becomes clear that no airline will institute the charges.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Battle of the baggage fees

  1. Closed captioning of: Battle of the baggage fees

    >>> outside assistance.

    >>> and not so fast. a group of senators is taking aim at a new and controversial airline fee. spirit airlines recently announced plans to charge passengers up to $45 to bring bags onboard but now six lawmakers want to tax any u.s. airline charging people for carryon bags. joining me live from capitol hill one of those lawmakers, democratic senator from minnesota , thank you, senator, for joining us.

    >> good to be on.

    >> so many people would love to give you a high five on this one. i'm not sure anybody who is defending the airlines other than maybe the airlines but why did you decide to take it to the next level here and possibly cost them rather than costing the passengers?

    >> well, a group of us including chuck schumer of new york said enough is enough. first they charge you for your carry on bags. then they charge you for a pillow and a blanket, then if you want a window seat and the next thing you know they'll charge you if you just use the bathroom on the airplane. so we felt it was very important to send this clear message that this has to stop. if you look at what this means, just for a carry-on bag, if you want to bring your clothes, you're gone for a weekend, 45 bucks . let's say a family of four goes to disney land and they have carry-on bags. i know my daughter would always bring her backpack with her school work . four carry-on bags, $45, that would be 180 bucks for a family of four in addition to the ticket price. and, you know, spirit airline is no longer service with a smile . it's service with a cash register .

    >> i want to read what the ceo of spirit airlines said to " usa today " in an op-ed. he said, quote , our decision to charge fees for carry-on bags relieves the carry-on crisis, smoogts out the boarding process, and reduces delays, all for the same total price or less. the new system will be a win for every passenger because we expect lower total prices, faster security lines, a smoother boarding process, faster deplaning and improved passenger safety because of fewer overstuffed bins. he says it's a win-win. you don't buy that?

    >> no. i think you can ask about 99% of passengers, if you said okay. you can either pay 45 bucks or you can wait one more minute while an 8-year-old gets her backpack out of the carry-on luggage compartment . i think they'll pick a wait a second. i'll wait ten seconds. that's just ridiculous. and i have not seen a lot of problem in getting on planes. we all know it takes a while. they have you go on by sections. sometimes they go quite quickly. i just think that's ridiculous when you compare that to 180 bucks in extra charges for a family of four.

    >> let me ask you. obviously if you are successful in getting this tax for these airlines to do this one would just assume they will do what so many other companies do, pass the cost right along to the passenger. what would prevent that?

    >> well, we're seeing this as a deterrent effect and actually there are two bills. i'm also on another bill that actually says they can't do this at all. it's banned. so we'll see which one -- that is an easier way to do it but we're not sure where that will go and we'll work on both of them. on this one, the whole idea is that it would be a deterrent for them doing it because what they're doing right now because they're not taxed on these extra add-on fees when you have to pay for trail mix and things like that, they keep adding these fees so it doesn't really reflect the true price of a ticket. and then it is really hard for competition to work. because it's very difficult to price compare when you're deciding how much it's going to cost you to go from minneapolis to chicago . it's very difficult if you don't really know what the true cost of a flight is until you get on it.

    >> well, senator, it's always great to have you on. i tell you, when you walk through the airports today or whenever you're going to be really popular walking through there. thank you.

    >> we hope this'll end.

    >> thank you very much .

    >>> a scathing new report is


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