United Airlines' said on Tuesday its new $25 fee to check a second bag offers "customers choice, flexibility and low fares," but travelers were not buying the explanation and took to blogs to protest.
The airline's new policy — the first of its kind among major carriers — has raised the ire of travelers who already feel fleeced by carriers that charge for in-flight goods and services that used to be included in the fare.
The new bag-check fee charged by United's parent UAL Corp likely will be matched by rival carriers that currently check two bags for free, experts said.
Within hours of UAL's announcement on Monday, travelers began registering their displeasure.
"Imagine the surprise when John and Jane Doe plus two kids show up for the trip to Disney with two bags each. One hundred dollars of souvenir money spent at the United counter," read one posting on flyertalk.com.
"I totally agree this is going to hurt the people that can least afford it and who don't know how to play the system. Kind of like the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer," read another flyertalk posting.
The fee is expected to generate more than $100 million a year in revenue and cost savings to help offset skyrocketing fuel costs. It will be charged to customers who purchase nonrefundable domestic economy tickets, but do not have status in frequent flyer programs at United or one of its partners in the Star Alliance. There is no fee to check one bag.
Previously, the cost to those customers of checking two bags was included in the fare.
Bag-check policies vary for major airlines, but generally they check two bags at no additional charge. Southwest Airlines Co., the largest U.S. low-cost carrier, has begun charging travelers to check a third bag. The first two bags remain free.
Dennis Cary, UAL's senior vice president of marketing, pointed out on Monday that only one in four UAL passengers currently checks more than one bag. He also noted that the fee will enable United to charge lower fares.
"This is part of our overall strategy to give customers choice in what they want to buy and what they don't want to buy," Cary said.
In some cases, the fee could send travelers to competing airlines that do not charge to check two bags. Other travelers will find clever ways to skirt the fee.
"What people will do to save $25 is pretty amazing," said Terry Trippler, travel expert at TripplerTravel.com.
United said it will be on the lookout for packing shenanigans.
"For the next four months our operations team will be preparing for what we need to do if this happens, while also focusing on keeping our flights on time," spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said.
Trippler listed several possible ways to skirt the fee.
These include: packing more in one bag without exceeding the 50-pound weight limit, packing more carry-on luggage, having a fellow traveler check the second bag (this would violate airport security rules), or bringing a bag that exceeds carry-on limits to the gate and checking it there.
For some travelers, dodging the bag-check fee will be a matter of pride, Trippler said.
"It's not so much as saving the $25. For them it will be the thrill of it," he said.
Ultimately, however, Trippler said passengers will accept the fee the way they accepted the loss of free in-flight meals and the disappearance of blankets and pillows on some flights.
Furthermore, he believes charging for a second bag-check will be the norm throughout the industry by the end of 2008.
Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said there may well be some resentment among passengers. But, in general, frequent business travelers pack light and will not be affected by the fee.
"You'll get some business travelers who will perceive it as yet more nickel-and-diming," Mitchell said, added that the fee is a necessary step for airlines to offset fuel prices.
"The only risk in this is that these kinds of policies are what turned a lot of travelers off and drove them into the open arms of low-cost carriers," he said. Mitchell was referring to airlines like Southwest and JetBlue Airways that compete aggressively with legacy airlines like United and AMR Corp.
Mitchell said airlines can minimize the financial impact of passenger outrage over bag-check fees by waiving them on routes where they face carriers that allow more free bag checks.
"Depending on who matches, this could be a problem and there could be exceptions in selected markets," he said.