The inside scoop on American's $15 first bag fee

David Landsel, June 21, 2008
Fares from Washington DC:

    So how's it going over at American Airlines in the post free checked bag era? Airfarewatchdog.com interviewed American spokesperson Tim Smith to get the inside scoop.

    But first, some background. It was a time-honored tradition among many an experienced traveler -- never check luggage, even if you're over the carry on bag limit.

         After all, crossing your fingers and heading for the gate usually paid off. Nine times out of ten, you'd get away with a bag (or two) that exceeded the airline’s carryon regulations. If you didn't, the worst was that you'd be forced to gate check your overage (mmm...forbidden overage). That is,  if it didn't fit in the overhead compartment.

    (Of course, if you’re old enough, you remember when there were no overhead bins on planes—just shallow and narrow racks to place your coat on, and passengers brought on board only a small airline-logo flight bag. But that’s another story.)

         The benefit of gate checking bags can be substantial -- a decrease in the chance of loss or delay, delivery to the jet-way shortly after landing and no time-consuming waits in crowded claim areas.

        Now passengers on American Airlines have yet another incentive to bend the rules -- the airline's new $15 one-way fee for the first checked bag.

        Passengers, obviously, will need to beware American's newest employees: The Luggage Police.

        Anticipating resistance to the surcharge, American has wisely laid on extra bodies. These employees are, essentially, enforcers. Their task will be to monitor strategic locations (security lines, for instance) to see that passengers aren't toting more than their share of Louis Vuitton. Customers with too many items or bags too large to bring on board, says the airline, "will be assisted in checking their luggage."

         So many questions. 

         Such as, how will they "assist" passengers, exactly? (We can see it now -- "Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to come with me....")

        American spokesman Tim Smith is confident that that those required to pay the fee won't have a prayer of getting around it.

         Unless, of course, you manage to sneak your contraband roller board past "curbside check-in, ticket counter check-in, self-serve kiosk check-in, our people stationed before security, the TSA checkpoint itself....without anyone noticing," he says.

        In which case, you'll most certainly be told at the gate that you will need to gate check your bag. And -- oh yes -- there will be a fee for that, and, yes, there are credit card machines at the gates, Smith tells Airfarewatchdog (we were wondering about that, and now we know).
     
        Sure, maybe they run out of space in the cabin. Fine, then. For your properly-sized carryons that inadvertently end up flying cargo class, there will be no fee. Happy now?

        LE DELUGE?
        The airline says that the whole process has been relatively hassle free -- no rush for the overhead bins, no YouTube-worthy fights over space.

         That could be largely due to the fact that there is a gigantic loophole in the policy. The vast majority of customers -- 75 to 80 percent, Smith says -- won't pay at all, ever, due to mileage status, fare type or itinerary (international travel is excluded).

        However, as any frequent traveler knows, it's not the 80 percent you have to worry about -- it's the 20, or even 10 percent of people on a plane who have no idea what they are doing that have the potential to really gum up the works.

        The airline says it is helping to smooth the process.

         For example, its self-service check-in kiosks have been reprogrammed to accept payment for any checked bags; they have eliminated the $2 fee to check bags at the curb, while gate and cabin staff are ramping up announcements in the gate area and on the plane, reminding people that it's strictly wheel end first in the overhead compartment to fit bags more efficiently and to put as much as possible under the seat in front of them. 

        CHANGING NEEDS?
        Luggage cops aside, it could be possible that airlines adding the fee (US Airways and United fire up the credit card machines August 9 and 18, respectively) could end up with the side benefit of needing fewer bodies to get planes on and off the ground. For example, if more passengers carry on, couldn't the airline do away with baggage and ground crew?

        "We don't expect a reduction," says American's Smith. However, he admits that there could be tough times ahead, for reasons related to the announced capacity cuts and grounding of planes, not to mention the still-rising cost of fuel.

         On the matter of a decrease in liability for lost or damaged luggage, Smith, pointing back to the fact that up to 80 percent of American passengers will not pay the fee, says he does not expect any thing to change, other than the fact that things will improve in that arena due to "better bag handling and practices."

        THE FUTURE OF THE FEE
        Believe it or not, this whole first-checked-bag business could have easily been a nonstarter. After announcing the policy on May 21, American was left to twiddle its thumbs until United and US Airways followed suit.
        
        American CEO Gerard Arpey isn't concerned what people think. In fact, in a speech quoted in a June 19 article on TheStreet.com, Arpey's stance appears to be that it is high time the public starts thinking clearly about what it really costs to run an airline.

         Arpey called fares "out of whack" with the actual cost of the flight, and stating that it would cost $250 to ship a typical bag from New York to Dallas overnight.

         Something to think about when you ponder that that there are times when you can fly yourself to Dallas for less than that. Let alone your bag.

    Editor's note:

    Should airlines charge for carry on baggage rather than checked baggage? Sounds like a good idea to us. Share your comments with other blog readers, and vote in our poll.

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