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New era in fees: Spirit charging for carry-ons

/ Source: The Associated Press

Spirit Airlines' controversial carry-on fees took effect Sunday, catching some customers unhappily by surprise. But the low-fare carrier contends that the move will cut down on flight delays, potentially allowing Spirit to add new flights.

Spirit spokeswoman Misty Pinson said the new approach already appears to be working. "The check-in process is going well so far," Pinson said Sunday afternoon. "It looks like this is going to speed things up."

Samantha Robles, 22, who was getting ready to check in for a flight at Fort Lauderdale International Airport, called the new charges "ridiculous." After finding out about the carry-on fees at the airport, she said she checked her suitcase because it was cheaper than paying for a carry-on. Robles said she would probably not fly Spirit again.

Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza admitted the company has received "an understandable number of complaints," mostly from people who don't realize that Spirit's ticket prices have been lowered. Spirit has cut fares overall, in some cases by more than enough to offset the cost of a carry-on bag.

"I think what we'll find is over the next weeks and months as this program evolves, and more and more people understand it, that people will see that the trade-off is a really good one," he said on Sunday. "Not everyone will think that, and those people may choose to fly someone else, but they'll likely pay more for their total travel than they will on Spirit."

Since airlines started charging for checked luggage, more flyers have brought carry-on bags on board. Spirit's new fee — the first in the industry — is aimed at discouraging passengers from stuffing the overhead bins because it often takes extra time to get bags settled and gate check those that won't fit onboard.

Spirit is charging $30 at check-in for any bag that's too big to fit under the seat. The price goes up to $45 for passengers who wait until they get to the boarding gate to pay, another step aimed at saving time. Members of Spirit's special fare club will only pay $20 for a carry-on. Umbrellas, camera bags, strollers and car seats are among the items that will remain free of charge.

Airlines have been able to wring extra profits from new fees over the past few years, charging for checked bags, extra legroom and refreshments. Spirit, based in Miramar, Fla., says it does not expect to profit from carry-on fees directly because price cuts have offset fee gains. But Pinson said that by shaving 6 or 7 minutes off the time that it takes to load and unload a plane, Spirit hopes to be able to add more flights.

The privately held airline currently operates about 150 daily flights. Most carry leisure travelers from big airports in the U.S. through Fort Lauderdale and on to Latin America. Spirit had extra employees on hand Sunday at airports to assist passengers. The airline was expecting to handle 23,000 passengers on Sunday, including 5,800 in Fort Lauderdale.

The Spirit terminal in Fort Lauderdale was mostly calm as passengers checked in. One couple could be seen going through two large suitcases, trying to make room for items they were taking out of a duffle bag. Another man, after being told he'd have to pay to carry his bag, rushed to the ticket counter to check the carry-on and make the flight.

Angel Aviles, 35, was traveling back to Puerto Rico out of Fort Lauderdale with his wife, daughter and father. They had a towering pile of suitcases on a cart that he said he had prepaid for online. There were also two carry-ons, which he said he did not know carried a charge.

"It's a surprise," he said as he waited in a line approaching the ticket counter. "It's too expensive. Compared to other airlines, they've raised it too much."

Spirit will be collecting data over the next few weeks to see how the plan is working out. No hard numbers were yet available.

Whether or not passengers eventually warm to Spirit's new fee, some other airlines have agreed that they won't take the same approach. New York Sen. Charles Schumer extracted a promise from five of the nation's biggest airlines, including AMR Corp.'s American Airlines and Delta Air Lines Inc., that they won't charge for carry-on bags.