Is There Such a Thing as a “Good” Bag Fee?

Alaska Airlines, Baggage

In general, baggage fees make people cringe. I don’t think it’s that it’s because charging for a checked bag is bad in theory, but rather it’s just that everybody was used to getting a couple bags included in the price of the ticket. The transition has been rough on customers, but one is at least trying to make the transition easier. Alaska seems to be trying to prove that there are, in fact, “good” bag fees by being the first to offer a guarantee in return.

Up until now, it’s been a pretty standard deal on most airlines. What you used to get for free, you now have to pay for, though airlines have been tweaking this to some extent. I believe US Airways may be the first Can a bag fee be good?legacy carrier to try price differentiation. If you pay online in advance to check your first bag, it’ll cost you that now-standard $15. If you pay at the airport, it will now cost you $20.

But the airlines have been missing something here, and that’s that the relationship changes when you have to pay for something like this. Now that you’re paying an amount specifically tied to the delivery of that bag, do airlines have additional responsibility to get to you in a timely manner? So far, the answer has been no. You aren’t treated any differently than you were when checking your bag was free. But Alaska is challenging that model.

Currently, Alaska still allows you to check one bag for free. But for tickets purchased beginning on May 1 for travel beginning July 7, it will now cost $15 to check that bag. Seems standard, right? But they’ve actually included a guarantee. And that’s what makes this a “good” bag fee, sort of.

If your bag doesn’t make it to the carousel within 25 minutes, you will now be entitled to either 2,500 miles or a $25 certificate to be used on a future flight. Does this cost them much? Nah. But it makes the customer feel like they’re actually getting something in return for paying the fee.

Of course, the fine print has exceptions. This only goes through December 15, though if it stays low cost I’d bet it will stick around. The more troubling exception is this:

Alaska and Horizon reserve the right to suspend the BSG in cases of airport baggage system malfunctions, severe weather events, or other conditions out of the airlines’ control that limit or prohibit timely baggage delivery.

I know that force majeure clauses are pretty standard, but come on – it’s not like they’re offering an embarrassment of riches here. We’ll see how often they invoke this clause.

But at least they’re trying to do something to address the changing relationship here, so for that, I give them credit.

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24 comments on “Is There Such a Thing as a “Good” Bag Fee?

  1. Too bad I don’t have much call to use Alaska out of Dallas but the plan seems simply to mirror the same force majeur they use in the actual operation of the airline. If the incident is within their control, such as mechanicals, labor issues, equipment substitutions, you the customer are compensated. Weather, ATC, acts of God,’re not.

    Simply put, if your travel is uninterrupted, on schedule and complete but your bag is unaccounted for, you get paid. I kinda like that.

  2. What I DON’T like is squeezing another $5 out of customer by forcing them to purchase or even check-in online.

    Plans change. I purchase the bag check online but decide to carry-on. Do I get my money back? When? To the reverse I don’t plan to check bags but still haven’t learned how to travel light. Now it’s $20 instead of $15?

    The “robbery” here is that it’s the same labor, equipment and supply expense to the airline if I let them know ahead of time or not that I’ll be bringing baggage. That I don’t like.

  3. They’re not going far enough. If I’m paying an extra fee for a checked bag, I want my guarantee to protect me against loss, pilferage, etc despite the deftly-worded exclusions in the CoC. How much would would the underlying insurance policy cost the airline? Dunno, but couriers like FedEx seem to be able to offer it for most shipments without charging in excess of the sorts of fees we’re talking about here. As a victim of baggage theft, this would be something of actual added value I’d be happy to pay for. As it is, I don’t think you can get baggage insurance unless as part of a more comprehensive trip insurance purchase.

    The Alaska thing seems nice, but in reality, they’re not really giving folks any added value. 25 minutes? With a host of disclaimers? Puh-lease. If I just landed and have been standing around the baggage carousel for >25 minutes, the last thing I want to do is spend _more_ time talking to the (usually disinterested/rude, at least in my experience) baggage agent on duty to request my “compensation”. I’m probably just ready to leave the airport ASAP.

    Hell, give me a guaranteed preboard so I can snag an overhead for my carry-on. That’s a fitting reward for people who pay the fee, as it seems like people are getting downright excessive with their carry-ons to avoid the fees.

    My point is that they’re not really giving people any value-added service here, although they’re trying to make it look that way. And when what enrages people about the fees is simply paying for what was once included in the price of a ticket, you have to give them something more to make it palatable. The profit margins are up to you (the airline).

  4. I have to agree with Pat on this one. The guest post about baggage theft last week was a good one, and timely. Most people I speak to didn’t go “all carry-on” because of fees (which started only last summer), but because of lost/stolen luggage which is an ongoing problem of years/decades. Getting your bag to your destination on time seems like the most basic expectation.

    If the new realities of air travel mean checking a bag carries a fee (airline profit center) I fully expect similar service to paying for parcel shipping, i.e. damage/loss/theft insurance, electronic tracking, etc. Make it so your airline’s baggage delivery system is 100% flawless, right down to no bags falling off over stuffed carts on the tarmacs. And if you do screw up, reward the customer for their hassle, something like a free R/T flight. A $25 voucher is hardly worth the time it would take to complain.

  5. I’ve been waiting (in general) for the public to start demanding better service and/or quality for something they are paying for above the ticket price. People would complain about airline food but still ate it, now if they have to pay extra for food are they going to demand it taste good or at least taste like it’s worth the $7(+/-) what they paid extra for it?

    Same with paying for checked baggage, while there has always been rules for compensation for lost bags, are people going to start demanding better serivce if they now have to pay extra?

    I think people should and they should complain louding if they fail to get the service/quality they paid extra for. And not just to the person standing in front of them, but right to the head of the airline and to any internet forum that would get the publics attention. And the airlines should handle each situation like a normal business would.

    If you have a valid complaint about the food or service in a restaurant, the manager will usually comp your meal. Well the airlines should start doing the same thing. Alaska is making a start in this area, so it will be interesting to see how it works out. And it shouldn’t just be extra miles or a credit towards another trip. It should be the money you paid refunded, that is the only way airlines will really start caring about what they are offereing.

  6. I LIKE baggage fees.
    I go to Europe for two weeks with a carry on. Unless I buy liquid souvenirs (which have this tendency to get shipped home anyway), I go back with a carry on and a personal item. Wife does the same. I don’t pay baggage fees. The fees have helped me to realize that the OneBag/Rick Steves approach is more effective than doing a checked bag. Having recently returned from a four city trip to Europe, I can say from experience that this approach works better than a big wheely cart, on pretty much every aspect you could want.

    Now, other travelers may figure this out. And this may cause some restriction of carry ons. Or, ideally, a total weight per passenger restriction, with overweight charges, instead of bag charges. Or, they will actually enforce their carry on restrictions (not a problem for me, a problem for a lot of other people, who are mostly minor jerks anyway).

    I consider baggage fees to be currently like the self selecting security lines (which NEED to come to O’Hare and National). If you are slick, you get the fast line and no charge. If you are unslick or unfast, you wait in the long line or you pay the fee.

  7. To me they are just annoying. If Southwest and United are both charging $89 one way including taxes (but not including bag fees), and I know I am going to be checking one bag, then United’s price is $30 more. Winner: Southwest.

    It is just a way of expressing the fare as a lower number to make it seem like it costs less. I’ve gotten used to it and can easily add the bag fee in my head now. However, knowing that bag fees and their dirty cousin, change fees, exist, pretty much just makes me go directly to Southwest’s web site when I know that Southwest is a non-stop option as much as United and Frontier.

    For the occasional flight I take that isn’t served by Southwest, I just try to pack a full 49.5 pound bag, because if I’m paying $15, I’m getting my money’s worth!

    It is even more annoying when there is an extra charge for paying the bag fee at the airport, compared to on-line. I don’t always know how many bags I’m going to be taking. Again, it just makes the Southwest experience much easier and the United/Frontier/other guys experience less enjoyable. Winner: Southwest

  8. I think Alaska’s compensation is lame. To get it I’ve got to complain, and all I get is the privilege of giving them another chance where I get $25 off. (or frequent filer miles, which for most frequent fliers will never happen, since they don’t check bags.)

    If Alaska is customer centric about this, you should be able to put in your reservation upto 2 or 4 weeks later online (or via mail/telephone) and have them both a refund for the baggage fee, plus the $25 off as an incentive for to try them again.

    I’m pretty sure at Seatac they’ve got the tracking info for this as I’ve seen Mears Aviation folks (which now does Alaska’s ground handling at SeaTac) scanning every bag right as it hits the baggage carousel.

    This would be something worth talking about.

    I’ve often wondered in the age of outsourcing in the airlines why FedEx or UPS haven’t developed an airport solution and started marketing it.

  9. Oh, I’ve also dealt with the whole checking luggage thing. Pretty simply I’ve not wanted to go for a whole bunch of little 1 oz bottles of shaving creams and the like. (I’m a Seattle green freak, and use lots of “organic”/”natural” stuff that is hard to find.)

    I don’t travel enough that the $15 is acceptable.. Although it almost makes sense to just ship myself the stuff, then ship it back…

  10. Do airlines scan, as Nicholas indicated above, every bag before they throw it out on the carousell, or how will Alaska prevent abuse?

  11. Oliver – I don’t know about Alaska, but I’m working on an in-depth piece on what US Airways has been doing with their bag system. They do scan each bag planeside as well as when it comes off the carousel but not when it goes on the carousel, as far as I can tell.

  12. I do hope the rumblings about ending 3-1-1 are true. I also travel light, but the liquids rule is the one thing that makes going all carry on difficult. Want to bring a friend you’re visiting a bottle of wine as a gift, gotta check a bag…

    Regarding Alaska, this is one of the reasons why I like having them as my main airline, they’re usually among the last carriers to add new fees and the like, and their customer service is much superior to the larger legacy carriers. That, and their FF program lets me earn miles on much of Skyteam and Oneworld, which allows a leisure traveler like me to keep my status pretty easily.

  13. @ Oliver –

    United and Delta were working on baggage scanning. I know a little more about United’s system.

    The bag is checked, the number entered in to the passenger name record (“PNR” or Reservation). At the baggage sorting room the bag is scanned to acknowledge receipt and assist in aircraft weight and balance planning. Prior to departure the two lists reconcile to find any stragglers and build an “off-load” list for the next airport.

    At the next airport the bags are scanned as they come off the plane. Connecting bags are routed to the next flight where the whole process is repeated. “Local” luggage are sent to baggage claim.

    Any missing bags, at any point in the journey, are traced in the system according to the last point of contact where scanning occured. This begins the “your bag made it this far” part of the conversation with the claims agent.

    It’s fairly leak-proof as far as tracing is concerned so long as all agents do their part and your itinerary does NOT include other airlines. Even if they scan on their side the two systems are not necessarily linked. In those cases the decades old teletype message system comes in by way of an APB for your bag to any possible airport and airline that may have last seen your belongings.

    External pressures to the system such as weather, ATC, etc help the system to break down but, all things normal, UA will at least know exactly where your bag is at during any given moment of your journey. I do not know if other airlines have caught up to or surpassed this system.

  14. @The Traveling Optimist — Thanks. I don’t recall on what carrier it was, but I do recall seeing the ramp guy scan each bag before putting it on the conveyer belt for loading into the plane’s belly.

    UA is (was?) running a test with RFID in ORD, which should make the whole process easier at some point.

  15. In Europe paying for checked luggage still is uncommon. And checked bags are free on most transatlantic flights, so I am not used to paying for my luggage.
    I consider travelling carry-on only, but get hit by the 100 ml liquid in a litre bag limitation and I can not fit my computer and clothing for a business trip longer than a week in a carry-on bag. Two or three days is fine, one can wear your suit on the plane.

  16. Agreed. C and F won’t ever pay but coach will. The Europeans are getting used to the idea now with Ryanair, SkyExpress and others.

    Big question here is whether or not the European airlines will start charging for booze!

  17. Spirit Air charges $19 for the first bag if you “check it” online, and $25 if you check it at the airport. It was this way in December, so it’s not new.

  18. ageekymom – Yeah, I knew other airlines were doing it, but I believe US Airways is the first legacy carrier to try to charge a different amount online than at the airport. Am I wrong?

  19. I agree with ML Harris…perhaps ridiculous checked baggage fees will teach some travelers to pack less and get it all in one carry on bag. Sure, it is easy for me to say, as I am in the luggage industry and I don’t have children to pack for as well….but it is possible!

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