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Uneven enforcement of airline carriage rules frustrates travelers

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Keep an eye on your luggage. As air travel returns to pre-pandemic levels, airlines appear to be getting stricter on carry-on baggage.

Brad Ritter has seen the clashes: gate agents rigidly enforce carry-on baggage weight and size limits – and force travelers to pay extra fees for checking their luggage at the gate rather than carrying them on board.

“They show no mercy,” says Ritter, a TV consultant from Los Angeles.

A few weeks ago, he saw a gate agent preventing a female passenger from boarding with her hand luggage. As Ritter boarded the plane, he saw the passenger stepping out of line, frantically moving the contents to other bags to lighten the carry-on.

Why are airlines so strict on hand luggage? The reason isn’t higher fuel costs or lack of space; it’s money.

“Airlines are probably doubling down on this strategy to extract as many customers as possible,” says Jeff Galack, who teaches marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “By being strict about what counts as carry-on, they can move free bags to paid bags.”

The industry sees a bright future in the charging of carry-on baggage. Global baggage fees hit a record $20.9 billion last year, according to a report by CarTrawler and IdeaWorksa company that consults travel agencies on ancillary revenue.

For example, last year, for flights within Europe, Aer Lingus began requiring passengers to book a more expensive “hand luggage with priority boarding” fare if they wanted to carry regulation-size luggage up to 22 pounds on the plane. AirAsia is now allowing travelers to double its regular hand luggage limit of 7 kilograms (15 pounds) – for a fee.

Revenues are substantial. American Airlines, for example, generated $1.22 billion in baggage revenue in 2021 and a record $7.42 per passenger, according to IdeaWorks and CarTrawler. Spirit Airlines has one of the highest baggage revenue rates in the world: $21.51 per passenger in 2021.

Which airlines are the strictest on hand luggage? And how do you avoid spending an extra $30 or $60 per passenger on your next flight?

Almost all airlines see dollar signs when it comes to baggage. An IdeaWorks and CarTrawler study found that all major national airlines, except Southwest, charged extra fees for checked bags – and sometimes for carry-on bags as well.

Historically, ultra-low cost airlines have been the most aggressive with baggage fees. Spirit Airlines’ baggage revenue rose from $28.9 million in 2007 to $663.2 million in 2021. The report found that the biggest increase per person came in 2010, the year Spirit added a charge for large carry-on bags.

“There is clearly a direct monetization strategy among airlines,” says Daniel Green, co-founder of the travel insurance company fay.

Green says many passengers think it’s nonsense to pay not just for checked baggage, but also for carry-on baggage. And the added level of aggression is off-putting. He suspects airlines are trying to make up for lost revenue in the early days of the pandemic.

“Nobody is happy,” he adds.

Long-time airline industry watcher William McGee says there is no consistency in how airlines enforce their baggage policies. When flights aren’t full, crews usually look away when passengers bring large carry-on bags. But when every seat is occupied, they strictly enforce the rules.

“This explains why some passengers may have to carry a bag without any problems on one flight, and then be prevented from carrying the same bag on another flight,” says McGee, senior researcher at the American Economic Liberties Project.

Monetizing baggage is a dance, with airlines always leading the way. You can play it safe and pay for your luggage in advance. Or you can call the airline’s bluff, hoping for a full flight and free checked baggage.

“I’m hearing more frequent gate announcements that flights are at capacity,” says Howie Honeycutt, senior vice president of global operations at GTA, a travel and expense management company. “Airlines offer free checked-in carry-on baggage.”

Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks and co-author of the baggage fee study, says travelers are better off traveling with less luggage. I joined him in the UK, where he was on vacation for about two weeks. He and his wife each took a medium wheeled bag and a small backpack.

“We plan to do laundry halfway through our stay,” he says.

And on at least one level, charging for checked baggage doesn’t make sense. Tony Jilek, former line maintenance supervisor and mechanic for Alaska Airlines, claims that charging for checked baggage just means more passengers are trying to carry their luggage on the plane. When they can’t fit everything in the overhead bin, “I’ve seen them rip the bin doors off,” he says.

Airlines also need to know that charging more for baggage is not a way to endear themselves to customers. But then, US airlines have already received billions in federal aid during the pandemic and are likely eyeing a record summer for revenue. It seems like nothing can stop them from monetizing your luggage.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advice can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDCs travel health advice webpage.