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Unbundled airline fees reach the overhead bin

Air travelers are accustomed to paying for checked bags, but now, Spirit Airlines has announced an industry first — a $45 fee for carry-on luggage.
Image: Ticket counter for Spirit Airlines
Spirit Airlines announced Tuesday that passengers will be forced to pay $45 to store carry-on bags  ($30 if paid in advance) in overhead bins, but bags that fit under seats are still free.Frank Franklin II / AP file

That lumpy person seated next to you on your next Spirit Airlines flight may not be so large in real life.

The budget carrier announced Tuesday it will begin charging a fee of up to $45 for each piece of carry-on luggage placed in overhead bins. The fees will be assessed on travel August 1 and beyond.

That means that come summer, you may notice some Spirit Airlines customers wearing multiple layers of clothing on flights in an effort to avoid the carry-on fee.

In the modern era of unbundled airline service fees, customers now pay for everything from sodas and snacks to extra leg room and seats on the aisle. On most airlines, passengers also pay hefty fees to check their bags.

George Hobica, president of travel Web site, said Spirit is the first airline he's aware of that plans to charge for bags passengers bring on board.

“Even Ryanair doesn’t charge,” Hobica said, referring to the low-cost Irish airline rumored to be mulling pay-to-pee lavatories on its planes. “The real question is: Will other airlines follow and will this actually be good for air travel?”

In the company’s press release announcing the policy change, Spirit Airlines Chief Operating Officer Ken McKenzie suggested the fee will be good for air travel, as it will “reduce the number of carry-on bags, which will improve in-flight safety and efficiency by speeding up the boarding and deplaning process, all of which ultimately improve the overall customer experience.”

Further, by unbundling the fees even more, McKenzie said passengers might save money. “Bring less; pay less. It’s simple.”

But will travelers go along? Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights, doesn’t think so. “This move by Spirit may cross the line for U.S. travelers who are already near the breaking point due to rising checked baggage fees,” Counter said. “While there may be a big enough customer base out there willing to suffer a wide array of add-on fees in exchange for rock-bottom fares, it's likely that this move will alienate many fliers.”

Steven Frischling, an airline blogger and emerging media consultant, called Spirit’s carry-on fee part of “a deceptive pricing scheme ... that should come before the Federal Trade Commission for review.”

Boston-based writer and travel expert Melanie Nayer doesn’t think fees for carry-on bags will fly. “We’ll see a slight increase in the price of airline tickets before we see airlines come out with carry-on bag fees,” she said. “Some things will just not go over well. This is one of them.”

Competitors keep watch
As they did when a few airlines first floated fees for checked bags, competing airlines are sitting back and watching how Spirit Airlines’ carry-on bag fees play out.

At Alaska Airlines, charging for carry-on luggage “has never come up in any conversation,” spokesperson Bobbie Egan said. United Airlines is not considering adding the fee, according to spokesperson Robin Urbanski. And AirTran Airways spokesperson Christopher White said the carrier has “no immediate plans to change carry-on baggage policies.”

“We weren't anticipating an airline to come out with a policy for carry-on bags,” said Brandy King, spokesperson for Southwest Airlines, one of few U.S. carriers that does not charge for checked bags. “But it still doesn’t change the way we’re doing business. We don’t have plans to charge for carry-ons.”

No other domestic airlines currently charge for carry-on bags, although carriers will reclassify your carry-on as checked baggage if it is too large for the overhead bin.

Spirit won’t charge for carry-ons until August, and there will be exceptions for items that fit under a seat. Furthermore, charges will not apply to several objects, such as umbrellas, assitive devices, outer garments (coats, hats, wraps), cameras, car seats/strollers, infant diaper bags, medicine, pet containers, reading material or food for immediate consumption.

And we will undoubtedly see travelers getting creative with some of those exempt items, and could see others adopting pocket-rich clothing.

SCOTTEVEST founder and CEO Scott Jordan called Spirit’s decision “ridiculous and insane,” but acknowledged business will be great “if other airlines are stupid enough to adopt the same program.” The company sells jackets, shirts, vests and other clothing with built-in pockets originally designed to help travelers maximize the one carry-on bag rule.

JetBlue, which doesn’t charge for a first checked bag, reacted to Spirit’s decision with pointed humor.

On its Web site, the airline offered this advice: “For those times when customers can’t travel on JetBlue, we recommend purchasing our expertly-crafted Extrago Sherpa Shirt — special outerwear we designed to hold an entire trip’s worth of necessities, including the money you’ll save by not checking or carrying on your bag.”

The shirt — a suitcase that wraps around a traveler’s torso — doesn’t really exist. But if other airlines follow Spirit’s lead, it may be the next hot item to hit retail shelves.

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to, authors the and is a columnist for You can follow her on .