Airlines are making billions from the baggage fees they started charging in 2005. In the last four years, they've raked in some $6 billion as I reported in The New York Times this spring. Now comes Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana with a plan that will mandate that airlines include one checked bag in the price of a ticket. The senator recognizes that there is a problem. Her solution, however is all wrong.
While airlines are raking in money by the suitcase-full, they are sloughing off on passengers and the Transportation Security Administration, the burdensome consequences of bag fees. The TSA estimates checkpoint workers are inspecting 59 million more bags as people bring their luggage with them on the airplane.
Once on board, passengers are fighting for overhead bin space. Flight attendants are left to mediate. Checked bag fees have had negative consequences for everyone except the airlines.
But let's think about the airlines for just a minute. For an industry heavily reliant on oil, the check bag fee can be the difference between red and black ink on the balance sheet. And really, considering that on an airplane, weight equals fuel, what's wrong with an airline charging to move our stuff?
Now, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday travel period, Sen. Landrieu is proposing an Airline Passenger Basics Act that would require airlines to accommodate one checked bag and one carry on bag in the ticket price. It would also require the airlines to provide unspecified "basic amenities".
When government starts telling private businesses what they can and cannot charge for, I think we are on a slippery slope. "The government deregulated aviation in 1978," said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association. "Having the government dictate prices and services is a 30-year step backwards."
There's also something arbitrary about focusing on airlines. Last month I rented a car from Avis and before I drove off, I had to navigate through no less than seven ancillary-fee related services; from turning on the satellite car radio to activating the tollway pass. Why is it okay for the government to tell airlines what they can charge while leaving other businesses alone? I put this question to Jay Sorensen, a guru on airline revenue who runs IdeaWorks, an aviation revenue consulting firm.
"What's next, the 'French Fry Act' which would require McDonald's to include an order fries with every hamburger?" Jay asked, rhetorically. "Congress has no business legislating the price of services offered by a private company."
On this, I think he's right. But Landrieu has a valid point, too.
TSA screening costs have increased by $260 million a year, the senator's office said in a press release. "These additional costs are the direct result of airlines’ checked baggage fees and taxpayers are being forced to pick up the tab."
To the extent that airline baggage fees have impacted a government provided service, the airlines have some financial obligation. Sen. Landrieu should be trying to figure out a way to re-capture from the airlines what their baggage fee decision has cost the rest of us, without legislating the way airlines provide services. Its doable, but requires something a little more thoughtful than playing to the highly excitable American air traveler.