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updated 3/3/2011 4:55:41 PM ET 2011-03-03T21:55:41

Choosing to carry your luggage onto a plane instead of checking it with an airline might save you a few bucks at the ticket counter but it's costing taxpayers about a quarter-billion dollars a year.

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Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress this week that luggage fees have prompted more passengers to hold onto their bags, which means more items for Transportation Security Administration officers to inspect at security checkpoints at a cost of about $260 million annually.

"When you have to pay to check a bag it increases carry-on luggage and that means there is more to inspect at the gate and so forth for passengers to get on planes," Napolitano said during testimony before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.

Napolitano was addressing a question from Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat and chairwoman of the subcommittee, who asked whether airlines should help make up for some of the extra costs.

"Checked bagged fees are increasing, it looks like, the cost to TSA because people don't want to pay the fees so they are not checking bags and putting more on the planes," Landrieu said the hearing Wednesday. "My question is, do the taxpayers have to pick up this fee? Or should we be looking at the airlines for some of the profits that they make from these fees to offset the cost the taxpayer."

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Without commenting on the question of airlines paying more, Napolitano said an increase in airport security fees — passengers pay up to $5 for each one-way ticket — would bring her department about $600 million a year.

A security fee increase has been proposed nearly every year since it was first introduced in 2002 but Congress has never approved it.

Rising fares, combined with fewer flights and more fees for passengers, have helped the airline industry post its first moneymaking year since 2007. The government estimates that the country's eight largest airlines are likely to earn more than $5 billion this year and $5.6 billion in 2012.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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