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Fee for all:  Avoid new airline luggage charges

American Airlines’ and United Airlines' decision to slap a $15 fee on the first checked bag isn’t the airline industry’s first attempt to squeeze more money from passengers through a sneaky surcharge. And it won’t be its last.
Image: Person with luggage in airport
A lone traveler is seen walking in the deserted baggage claim area for American Airlines earlier this month.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP file

American Airlines’ decision to slap a $15 fee on the first checked bag — and United Airlines' decision to match it, announced Thursday — isn’t the airline industry’s first attempt to squeeze more money from passengers through a sneaky surcharge. And it won’t be its last.

American blamed “increasing costs of transporting checked baggage,” for its move. “While we understand that these fees affect customers, we also believe that our pricing for the services we provide remains extremely competitive in the industry and continues to offer our customers ample choice and value,” American’s chief executive, Gerard Arpey, said in a prepared statement.

Reaction to the first-bag fee across the blogosphere was swift and unusually critical. Gadling’s Grant Martin predicted chaos this summer as a result of the new fee. Jaunted compared American to Ryanair, the Irish discount carrier that charges for anything not bolted down on its planes. And the ubiquitous Rick Seaney asked, “What are they thinking?”

Me? I’ll resist the I-told-you-so.

Now that United joined American, other carriers are likely to follow. Most pundits feel it’s not a question of if, but when, the other major airlines will start charging for all checked luggage. But at least one carrier — Delta Air Lines — says it won’t, for now.

Here’s something none of the airlines with luggage fees are likely to tell you: You don’t have to pay. Here are four ways you can avoid these unexpected extras.

1. Carry on your luggage
Obviously, if you have nothing to check, you won’t be charged. But by taking all of your belongings on the plane, you’re also sending a clear message to the airline: enough is enough. The nickeling and diming won’t work. “It’s going to slow the boarding process,” predicts Jonathan Yarmis, a frequent flier and technology industry analyst Weston, Conn. “Flights will take longer to board. Things will run late. That’s going to cost airlines way more than the revenue they generate.” Joel Widzer, author of “The Penny Pincher’s Passport to Luxury Travel,” agrees. “This could backfire,” he told me.

But don’t let that stop you. In fact, you should carry on the maximum luggage you’re allowed. Take your time boarding, too. If enough passengers do, then it could put this ill-advised fee out of its misery.

2. Cite the contract
Although American Airlines has been clear that it will only charge its new $15 fee for tickets bought on or after June 15 (and United for tickets bought on or after June 13), other airlines have tried to impose similar fees retroactively. For example, Nick Anderson made reservations to fly from Knoxville, Tenn., to Bangor, Maine, last November on Delta Air Lines. “I was careful to check the baggage rules and Delta policy allowed for two bags to be checked free of charge per passenger,” he told me. “Now, many months after making the reservation, I see that the policy has changed to allow only one checked bag per passenger and that they will charge $25 for each additional bag.”

My reading of Delta’s Contract of Carriage — the legal agreement between Anderson and the airline — leads me to conclude that the rules under which he booked his ticket should be the ones that apply to his flight. So I put Anderson in touch with a Delta customer service manager. “The executive told me the fee was retroactive,” Anderson said after speaking with him. “Why would anyone book on Delta when you have no way of knowing what their fees will be when you arrive at the check in?” I think Anderson can, and should, make his case when he gets to the ticket counter — and I hope he does.

3. Card ’em
If you’ve got a frequent flier card, flash it. Elite-level frequent fliers and passengers with certain tickets are exempt from the new fees. For instance, American still allows customers with Executive Platinum status and people who paid for full-fare economy class seats to check in a first bag at no cost. Business and first-class travelers don’t have to pay, either. Nor do people with international itineraries — unless they’re flying to and from Canada or a U.S. territory, such as Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Never mind that the very passengers who can least afford to pay the extra $15 — families with children, budget travelers and working Americans — are being socked with this surcharge, as I pointed out in a recent blog post. If you don’t have a frequent flier card, there’s another card you can play: the victim card. I described it in a previous column, and if used correctly, it can be a persuasive tool. Pointing out the unfairness of having to pay to check your child’s stroller or seat can make a compassionate ticket agent look the other way. (And yes, there are compassionate employees — even at one of the major airlines.)

4. Complain to the government
In a press conference with half a dozen handpicked bloggers a few weeks back, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters suggested that when it comes to charging extra for luggage, the government won’t tolerate any airline shenanigans. “Passengers should know what to expect, and what to pay, before they buy a ticket or pack their bags, which is why we are calling for carriers and travel agents to disclose baggage fees in their Internet and print ads before anyone purchases a ticket,” she told the group. “We also are making it clear that airlines may not impose increased fees or new restrictions for baggage after a passenger has bought a ticket.”

So does this mean the government is on our side? I’m not sure if I’d go that far. After all, the Transportation Department’s “Bloggers Row” press conference appeared to be nothing more than a sham designed to generate favorable coverage for Peters. (If there were any real bloggers at the meeting, they would have churned out posts of well-deserved criticism.) Still, the government is obligated to report your complaints — and airlines pay lots of attention to that. Here’s how to file yours.

You can avoid the onerous new luggage fees by bulking up your carry-on luggage, flashing your frequent flier card, quoting from your airline’s contract and complaining to the government. But if these fees stick — and let’s hope they don’t — then you’ll have to change your attitude toward the airline.

What do I mean by that? Well, if American, United and other airlines unbundle the cost of luggage from your ticket, and you’re paying extra for all of your bags, shouldn’t you get something for the money? Like a guarantee that your property won’t get lost. Or at the very least, an immediate refund of the fee when your luggage disappears.

But beyond that, maybe it’s time to draw up a separate legal contract for the carriage of our luggage, which will offer more generous compensation when an airline loses it.

After all, if you’re paying more, shouldn’t you expect more?

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, for daily insights into the world of travel.