July 21, 2008

New Fees to Cover Rising Fuel Costs Alter Some Travelers’ Packing

By Bryon Okada, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas

Jul. 21--D/FW AIRPORT -- Doreen Wybranowski is standing in Terminal B baggage claim, and her load is lighter than usual.

"I learned my lesson," the Grand Rapids, Mich., resident said. "I just came with one bag."

Wybranowski is in town for a Mary Kay convention in Dallas. Bag fees she incurred on a recent vacation to San Antonio convinced her to smash her formalwear into a single suitcase this time.

Her carrier of choice, United Airlines, is one of the majors that now charges a set of fees for checked baggage to offset rising fuel costs.

But a month after the airlines started charging the fees -- $15 for the first checked bag and $25 for the second -- passengers don't like it. And, in most cases, they said they are packing differently as a result.

High emotions from passengers is an expected reaction, airline officials said. But they also report that across the country the bag fees are having little operational effect because most summer-vacation travelers booked tickets before the policy change, which wasn't retroactive, and because there are a slew of exemptions available to many business travelers.

American Airlines is downplaying the effect on the flying experience the fee may have added -- at least for now. In late summer/early fall, most of the leisure travelers will have booked after the policy went into effect, and a larger impact may be felt then.

"We're not seeing an increase in carry-on luggage for the most part, and we're not seeing a change in behavior," airline spokesman Tim Wagner said.

The Transportation Security Administration, which handles security at airport checkpoints, also reports no noticeable difference in the number of carry-on bags per passenger, although the TSA will monitor the situation through the summer, spokeswoman Andrea McCauley said.

But that doesn't change the perception of many passengers, who say that despite airline and federal government reassurances, things have changed for the worse.

New traveling methods

"I'd like to check them both, but I don't think I can," said Marilyn Hoover of Anderson, Ind., who checked one suitcase and carried on a smaller one for her trip to a local jewelry show. She said several of the passengers on her American Airlines flight to D/FW tried to carry on full-size or mid-size suitcases. One family had bigger bags for the kids than for the adults. The flight crew tried to be understanding and patient as the family crammed belongings into the overhead bins and under seats, Hoover said.

Sonny Mehta of Austin says he isn't packing differently; he's flying differently. No overnights means no need to pack. A morning flight will be followed with an evening flight the same day.

But just because he's adapted doesn't mean he's happy.

"I think the bag fees are ridiculous," Mehta said. "My company pays enough as it is. If they're going to charge more, I'd rather not know about it."

He prefers higher ticket prices rather than a nickel-and-dime approach, he said.

Jeff Vint, a business traveler from Minneapolis, packs his clothes in a single carry-on bag. But he does it for more traditional reasons. A seasoned road warrior, he says he simply does whatever it takes to avoid baggage handling.

Traveler reaction

Anecdotes aside, passengers simply don't like the policy, said David Stempler, president of Potomac, Md.-based Air Travelers Association. But with the cost of doing business, some extra cost was bound to trickle down to customers.

"They're unpleasant -- and inevitable," Stempler said. "No one's really happy about the situation. The airlines are unhappy. But with jet-fuel costs the way they are, it becomes a question of either increases in fares or increases in fees. At least with fees you can avoid some of them by carrying on baggage or by packing things in just one bag, or just two."

Customers tend to purchase airline tickets based on just a few factors, with price overwhelmingly the top priority.

"We cannot afford to be uncompetitive with ticket prices, because people will purchase the cheaper ticket," Wagner said.

On the other hand, fuel costs now account for about 48 percent of American's expenses. In the second quarter, American spent $2.4 billion on fuel. In the same quarter a year ago, they spent $1.6 billion, and bought more fuel.

While American executives estimate that bag fees will bring in "several hundreds of millions of dollars" this year, that pales in comparison with the rise in fuel costs.

"This isn't getting us all the way there," Wagner said.

Check-in or carry-on American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner answered questions about the fees:

How will passengers pay the new luggage check-in fee?

When booking a ticket or at the check-in counter.

Is there a charge for a carry-on laptop or luggage?

No, but carry-ons must comply with the rules.

Is this slowing passenger load times?

"We have noticed no change whatsoever across the system."

Do you have personnel at the checkpoint to monitor the number of bags, weight and size?

"We always have more airport staff during the busy summer travel period, and some of those are stationed at the airport-security lines, as they have been in the past. Those personnel are also helping passengers understand the new bag policy and may send those whose bags are obviously larger than the carry-on policy allows back to check the bag at the ticket counter."

Are overhead compartments jammed more than before?

"No, we have not noticed a change in passenger behavior related to carry-ons."

When will the impact be felt?

"Since many passengers purchase their tickets for summer travel well in advance, the end-of-summer/start-of-fall period will be the time period when most passengers will have purchased their travel after the June 15 implementation date."

What is the procedure for check-in using the kiosks?

Passengers will be asked how many bags they have to check in, asked to pay via credit card and then directed to a counter where an American worker will check their ID and tag their bags.

And if you check in from home?

Passengers who check in from home but have luggage will be directed to the kiosks to pay for their bags.

And if you check in curbside?

The old $2 fee has been eliminated. There is only the $15 first-bag fee or $25 second-bag fee, even when checking at curbside. If those fees do not apply because of an exemption, then there is no curbside check-in fee.

Is there new technology in the works to make the process easier/faster?

Nothing specifically related to this or new this year.

Is the change primarily affecting business travelers?

Many business travelers have AAdvantage status or have purchased a class of tickets that would be exempt. "We estimate that only approximately 25 percent of our customers will be subject to the first-bag fee when fully implemented. Only about 4 percent will pay the second-bag fee. We do not break down those estimates by business/leisure travelers."

What is the acceptable size and weight for carry-ons?

A piece of carry-on luggage can add up to 45 inches and must weigh 40 pounds or less.

Will there be a fee if you have to gate-check a bag because the overhead compartments are full?

Not as long as your carry-on bag is the appropriate size.


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