Should "customers of size" pay for their excess baggage?
You're paying more to travel, and not just for your plane ticket. Every pound counts as the number of carriers charging for all checked luggage racks up. So it stands to reason that the public might be wondering why the airlines don't charge passengers with significant overages of a more, uh, personal nature.
Southwest calls them "customers of size." Medical professionals would use the term obese. Bloggers and message board habitués use names that are a lot less polite.
Many people assume that fat people are getting a free ride. But are they? Nearly all airlines keep it very quiet, but many have policies – informal or formal – in place to make sure that passengers of size carry their own weight.
It's a tricky business. In some corners – Canada, for instance -- it just got trickier. A winter ruling barred Canadian airlines from discriminating against "clinically obese" customers. Southwest was successfully sued by a passenger who was told she needed to purchase a second seat after she had already boarded – too late, the ruling found. An ample Air France passenger won a case after citing humiliation at the hands of staff who wrapped packing tape around him in public to prove that he was too fat to sit one seat, forcing him to purchase another.
Here's the funny part about those lawsuits. At the time, both Southwest and Air France had actual policies in place for dealing with overweight passengers. Southwest's policy has been around for years. It states that if staff determine that the passenger will not fit in one seat, the passenger must purchase a second, a cost which will be reimbursed if the flight is not full.
Air France's policy was more loose, urging passengers who knew that not having an empty seat next to them would be a problem, to handle it on their own in advance. (As of this writing, Air France passengers "with a high body mass" are warned that if they do not purchase an extra seat their own, they may not be allowed to board.) In the end, both airlines were punished for being up front with their customers, even if the execution of the policy perhaps needed work. This is, after all, a terrifically sensitive matter.
Perhaps that is why the topic, with many airlines, tends to be something along the lines of That Which We Don't Speak Of. Ask a major carrier like United Airlines what rules they have in place for dealing with the situation, and you'll hear a pregnant pause (followed by a terse "we have no policy.")
American Airlines is more forthcoming, but hastens to emphasize that it does in no way require its passengers to purchase two seats. Spokesman Tim Wagner does say that passengers whose weight exceeds 250 lbs. should know that there are "possible limitations that could result in American not being able to accommodate them." He also states that the airline urges passengers to "recognize ahead of time that they may need to purchase two seats." He also cites the FAA regulation that all airlines adhere to – if you can't snap the seatbelt (after the extension is added, that is) you can't fly.
JetBlue doesn't mind taking a more straightforward stance. Spokesperson Alison Eshelman says that their policy "requires" larger customers who need an additional seat for their own comfort to buy one in advance. If they do not, and the crew cannot accommodate them, they will be required to buy the seat in any case, with no refunds. (However, Eshelman notes correctly that JetBlue does offer its passengers a little more wiggle room with their larger-than-average seat width on board the airline's A320 aircraft.)
But what of the growing awareness among the traveling public that it costs the airline more to transport an obese passenger than a passenger of average weight?
Those hoping for any type of joy in that department should sit on their hands. (See: Lawsuits.) Delta's Susan Elliott states clearly that the airline "has no plans to implement any policy that discriminates against any of our passengers." Translation: This is one hot potato ain't nobody going to touch.
DOES SIZE MATTER?
Here's a look at how different airlines deal with the "customer of size."
Passengers should plan on purchasing an extra seat or risk being asked to do so at the airport by staff. If the flight is not sold out, the passenger may claim a refund.
Airline states that passengers over 250 lbs. should recognize that there may be limitations to the service that the airline can provide, however, it does not require that you purchase an extra seat automatically.
No policy whatsoever.
Like Southwest, passengers are encouraged to know their needs in advance. If staff determine that two seats are required, the seat will be sold at the lowest possible fare, with a refund available if there is one or more open seats on the flight.
Passengers with "high body mass" may receive a 25 percent discount on an extra seat, knowing that if it chooses to not buy the seat, it may risk not being able to fly.
You are required to buy a second seat, and there are no refunds.
The airline "works to accommodate" passengers with special needs. Upon request and availability, it will try to make sure the next seat is unoccupied. However, if the plane is full, you will most likely be asked to leave the flight and buy a second seat on the next available flight. (You can actually count on this being a fairly typical practice on most airlines.)
Take our poll: Should clinically obese passengers be required to buy an extra seat? (It's the fifth question down, but feel free to vote on the questions 1-4 too!)
Every now and then, airlines do throw passengers a bone. They'll credit you if you cancel before takeoff, refund you if the fare goes down after purchase, make it up to you when you get bumped from a flight, soften the blow if they can't get you home due to a mechanical failure or say they’re sorry for truly execrable service (but it has to be really, really bad, and you usually have to ask for satisfaction). And they often do this in the form of a voucher, good for future travel, usually valid within a year of issue.
However, there's credit, which is what most people expect these days – automatic, easily applied to your credit card account; and there's the voucher. And in some cases, Airfarewatchdog.com has found, redeeming vouchers triggers unexpected fees and involve a good deal of inconvenience.
So much so that, until recently, you'd be justified in calling an airline voucher That Piece of Paper We Give You That's So Hard To Convert To A Ticket, We're Positive You Won't Even Try. That is, at least, what I called the last paper voucher I received, issued by Delta.
I was jazzed to see complimentary travel in my future. However, I quickly learned that it was a lot easier for Delta to hand out vouchers than it was for me to cash mine in. I could find no way to use it online. Turned out that I would have to call the 800 number to redeem. Then, after a long period on hold, and after selecting dates and times, I was informed that the reservation was only tentative. To seal the deal, I had to go to my nearest ticket office, which in your case may be your nearest airport. Whether or not I was being singled out for aggravation will forever go unconfirmed; Delta spokesperson Susan Elliott was understandably keen to focus on how things had changed. Today, Elliott says, paper vouchers are almost a thing of the past – now, travelers receive e-vouchers with reference numbers that, once typed in with your reservation on Delta.com, will be automatically applied to your bill. Still, this is very much an almost – paper vouchers are still around for credit on international travel and remain the currency for some awards-travel related scenarios.
In cases like these, travelers would need to call to redeem, in which case, they're slapped with the $25 phone fee that Delta now charges. A charge for free travel? Yep, pretty much. After all, Delta and American now charge between $25 and $50 to obtain “free” frequent flyer tickets, even if done online.
SAY, WHAT'S A VOUCHER?
You'd think it was as simple as a voucher being a gift, whereas credit is something issued for a purchase previously made. It's not. As mentioned above, if you get bumped, sometimes you get the voucher. If, for instance, the voucher was for international travel on Delta, now you're paying more to rebook. Vouchers, though, are issued for many reasons. Continental, for example, issues them when you find an itinerary booked on Continental.com for more than $10 less, after purchase. The airline, once they are satisfied you meet all requirements, will issue you a $100 chit, formally known as an Electronic Travel Certificate, redeemable for free, online. US Airways has more than a half-dozen different types of vouchers, from a $25 Air Check on upward, mostly handed out in various scenarios involving passenger inconvenience. Luckily, while you need to call the 800 number to apply the voucher to future travel, you won't have to pay a fee (which is otherwise $25 for domestic and $35 for international travel). The airline does say, however, that you will have to make payment at "a valid location" (read: inconvenient) within 24 hours of booking over the phone.
American Airlines has a sort of won't-know-until-you-get-there policy. For example, says spokesperson Tim Wagner, in the event of customer service issues, you might either receive electronic or paper vouchers, depending on the type of issue that arises. If, for instance, bad weather cancels flights, those who are traveling on non-refundable tickets will receive paper vouchers, which means you'll need to call or show up in person to redeem. However, in cases like these, there's no booking fee. United also makes you call to redeem a paper voucher, and that also applies when redeeming an unused ticket from a cancelled trip. We tried to get United to say whether or not either situation results in the $25 call center fee that the airline now charges, but spokesperson Robin Urbanski-Janikowski would only say that it depends on what type of voucher the traveler was trying to redeem. (Read that as a yes, until told no.) Where United is keeping up with the times, though, is the issuance of electronic certificates in situations such as their Low Fare Guarantee program, where you can get $50 plus the difference in fare between what you booked on United.com and a lower price you found elsewhere, refunded to you electronically, and good for purchases online.
IF ONLY IT WERE ALWAYS THIS EASY
All the confusion over the various steps one has to take to redeem your credit appears to be entirely foreign to newer airlines such as JetBlue. Spokesperson Alison Eshelman says that because they are a "paperless" airline, there is no scenario where a credit issued will result in additional fees – unless, of course, you decide that you'd prefer to book with a human being vs. the airline's website. For that, there's a $15 fee. Northwest also issues electronic credit vouchers in cases of "service-related events," for instance, delays and bumps. You can redeem vouchers online not only for future travel, but also for additional charges and extra miles. Flexibility and ease of use – how novel is that.
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?
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.
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.
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.
If you're ready to never fly again, well, you're not alone. There's fuel prices -- through the roof. There's the economic slowdown -- can we really afford to go anywhere this year? And also, just for fun -- another round of demoralizing cutbacks and new, crazy fees! OMG, will we ever fly again?
Okay, true -- many routes are punishingly expensive this summer, suffering from a triple-whammy of higher costs, service cutbacks and higher traffic. But that doesn't mean that you have to resort to one of those "staycations" (shiver) that our respective hometowns are busily marketing. (Oh look, honey! I commute past this every day! Take a picture!)
In the interest of public service, we hit the mute button on the seemingly never-ending string of experts preaching doom and gloom, just long enough to be able to focus on the task at hand: searching for bargains.
Here, 10 awesome summer airfares. Get 'em while they exist. And speaking of existing, they were accurate as of Friday, June 6, but could be history by the time you read this. But in general, either because they’re served by more than one low cost airline (Airtran, Southwest, Allegiant--you know the ones), or because it’s off season for some of them, these destinations are, in general, bargains compared to others you might be considering.
1) COSTA RICA
Why pay $700 for another weekend flight to Las Vegas when you could be relaxing in this affordable paradise that's got plenty of summertime appeal (mountains! exotic flora/fauna! yoga! surfing! eco-lodges!).
The deal: American is selling fares to San Jose (CR, that is) for as little as $69 OW from Fort Lauderdale, good for travel through Oct. 30. Book by 6/9. After that, the fare goes up, though we're seeing lots in the $300 RT range for later this summer; not bad a'tall (aa.com).
2) MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST
Best known as where New Orleans residents went to breathe free during the hot, disease-ridden, pre-air-conditioning summers, this quirky region was famously ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, but is in overdrive rebuilding. An easy drive out of the French Quarter itself, you'll find charming villages such as artsy-craftsy Ocean Springs, a sring of sandy beaches and one of the country's best casino resorts, the Beau Rivage (an early-Steve Wynn special).
The deal: $109 OW sale on US Airways from New York (LGA), Las Vegas, Denver, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC -- midweek and Saturday travel, through Nov. 12 (usairways.com).
The Valley of the Sun in summertime should change its name to the Valley of Too Much Sun. (It might also consider changing its name permanently to Valley of Too Much Traffic, but that's not for here.) Whatever -- savvy travelers know that this is the time of year for killer deals at the region's top luxury hotels and spas. To illustrate: $149 midweek at the Four Seasons Resort in Scottsdale, through Sept. 6. (Yes, please!)
The deal: The cost a non-stop to Phoenix tends to plummet during the summer months, and while it's not looking quite so wide open this year thanks to high fuel costs, August fares on United from Los Angeles are running about $149 RT right now (united.com). Also in August, American is showing up at $237 RT from Chicago-O'Hare (aa.com). Plus, once you get here, even luxury hotels are dirt cheap.
What's the new definition of a must-see? When you can fly there for less than it would cost to drive. Luckily, Buffalo's no bore -- particularly not in the busy summer months. A few of our favorite things: the annual garden tours, the region's striking architectural heritage (see: Frank Lloyd Wright; a rich Arts & Crafts legacy in East Aurora), not to mention the twin summer cultural extravaganzas on either side of the Niagara River -- Lewiston's Artpark and Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival. Did we mention the amazing summer wines? ? The deal: Fares of $79 each way from New York-JFK on JetBlue, based on advance purchase (jetblue.com). Similar fares from Boston and connecting fares from other cities.
It's mid-July. Time to swap the sweaty lowlands for the crisp air and blue skies of the Rocky Mountains, and happily, it's not too difficult to find a deal to the region's primary gateway, even if when you land, you feel like you have been diverted to Kansas (that's because the Denver Airport is so far east, some would say it is almost Kansas.) ?Hop in a car, however, and you can be in Boulder or Estes Park in short order. Estes Park is certainly not going to be confused with the Midwest any time soon.
The deal: Fly RT from Chicago-O'Hare on United for as little as $215 for July, mid-week travel (united.com). In August, American can do a lot better than that -- $151 RT, also mid-week, based on availability. Of course, at that price, don't count on a whole lot of availability (aa.com). Thanks to Southwest Airlines’ expansion at Denver International, we expect this destination to remain a bargain. Also, several airlines have had rather amazing deals.
Don't let rising prices take the Mickey out of your summer -- it's relatively easy to find a good fare to this massively popular destination. It's summer, so make sure to slot in plenty of time under the trees -- say, at Disney's leafy Animal Kingdom -- or in one of the many water parks, the newest of which is Sea World's showy Aquatica.
The deal: $64 OW on Southwest from Philadelphia, restrictions apply but the fare hangs around, based on availability, through Oct. 30 (southwest.com)
The most progressive little city in Texas is a must-stop for music and beer, but if you're lucky enough to get down here, don't limit yourself to the city alone, which is at the heart of a region filled with fascinating -- and tasty diversions. Top spas, great barbecue and award-winning wines from one of the many Hill Country vineyards make this the perfect weekend for any connoisseur of the finer things.
The deal: Southwest starts at $79 OW from Los Angeles, Denver, Fort Lauderdale, Oakland and Philadelphia, restrictions apply, based on availability, through Oct. 30 (southwest.com).
t's a secret, but it's a fact: Seattle does have sun. Sometimes. Visitors might almost feel gypped — it's possible to come here on a short visit and not experience any rain at all. That's all the better for getting out there and exploring the city's dynamic neighborhoods or renting a kayak and paddling around Lake Union to pick out the houseboat in which you'd like to live some day.
The deal: New service on Virgin America means introductory fares -- just $99 OW from San Francisco and $154 OW from Los Angeles, based on availability (virginamerica.com).
9) PORTLAND, ME
Ever been to this charming city by the bay? (Casco, that is.) Explore the historic downtown with its impossibly charming side streets, browse the shops, try its excellent restaurants, but for heaven's sake, leave plenty of time for exploring the natural surroundings -- it's summer, it's Maine, why not? Hop on board a Casco Bay ferry for the daily mail run -- the round-trip cost for the three hour tour, which visits various bay islands, is just $13.
The deal: JetBlue has OW fares of $79 from Richmond, Virginia -- a savings of over $20 off their Richmond-Boston fare. There's a 7-day advance purchase clause and travel must be completed by July 30 (jetblue.com).
? 10) WISCONSIN
Ah, the Northwoods -- we can smell the pines from down here. Or maybe you don't like the woods -- what about nearby Lake Superior, with its rugged/awesome coastline? No? Okay, takes all types. Luckily, you've got all sorts of options if you fly into Central Wisconsin Airport in Wausau, which is handily placed for just about anything America's Dairyland-related -- including the killer water park rides in the famous Wisconsin Dells region, just an hour or so drive from the airport.
The deal: New service on American to Wausau's Central Wisconsin Airport features a host of introductory fares -- the folks in Tampa can fly up north for as little as $186 RT. Purchase by June 24, travel by Aug. 1 (aa.com). And for whatever reason, Midwest Airlines seems to be in pretty good shape so far, and has launched a number of sales (which others have matched) into and out of Wisconsin lately.