Airlines Should Refund Bag Fees If Your Bags Don’t Arrive With You

Baggage, Government Regulation

Uh oh. It looks like the DOT has found something else they don’t like about airlines with which they want to get involved. This time, it’s the refunding of bag fees when bag aren’t delivered. Guess what? I agree with the idea.

Bag Fee Refund

First I’d like to say that I hate when the feds get involved with anything, because they usually screw it up. It sounds like definition of the words “timely manner” might be in play right now, and you know this will never be implemented properly. Of course, had the airlines been more proactive in this area, they wouldn’t have had to deal with this. I realize that when Secretary Ray LaHood gets his focus on something the airlines do, he seems to enjoy rushing it through without actually measuring consequences. So, let me give some suggestions on what might make sense here.

The key is determining what exactly you’re paying for when it comes to bag fees. I believe that you’re paying the airline to deliver your bags to your destination on the same flight you’re scheduled to take when you check those bags. If you show up on that flight and your bags don’t, you should have the fee refunded. I’m not so sure it should be a full refund, but we’ll talk about this later.

Of course, bag fees aren’t new, but they’ve never impacted as many people as they do today. Bag fees have existed for ages when you think about excess and overweight bags. I would say the excess bag fees should also be refunded if the bag doesn’t arrive because you’re ultimately paying for that specific piece to go with you. Overweight bag fees, however, should not. In that case, you’re paying for the extra care and liability involved in handling such heavy bags.

The focus, of course, is on whether or not the standard bag fees should be refunded. I think they should. Others, including the airlines, will disagree. Are you paying for the bag to be delivered on your flight or just delivered at all? After all, the airline still has to do all the work to carry the bag, even if it arrives late. That’s where the amount of the refund comes into play.

As I said, I think you’re paying for your bag to travel with you, but that doesn’t mean the airlines couldn’t create a different structure if they wanted. What if the airlines said (numbers are just for demonstration purposes) that you could pay $30 to check your bag on your exact flight or you could save $15 for the airline to deliver it within 24 hours. In other words, in exchange for giving you a discount, airlines could pull your bags off your flight because it’s already full or it’s running late and put it on a later flight instead. They would trade revenue for operational flexibility. In that case, if you paid $30 and your bag doesn’t arrive on your flight but comes soon after, you’d get $15 back. If it didn’t arrive within 24 hours, you’d get it all back.

Some airlines have already tried to address this issue, and they deserve credit. The one that’s received the most attention is that Alaska gives you a $20 voucher if your bag doesn’t arrive at the carousel within 20 minutes. It’s not a refund, but it goes a long way to at least recognizing that the airline has a responsibility. I also just learned that Delta has a $25 to $50 voucher if your bags are delayed by more than 12 hours. That surprised me (in a good way).

Only one airline, however, has really stepped up to the plate. Frontier has now put the most concrete policy out there. If your bag doesn’t arrive on your flight, you get a refund of the fees. If those fees had been waived because you bought a higher-priced ticket or you’re an elite member, you’ll still get a voucher for what the amount would have been. Great job, Frontier. It’s all part of that airline’s recent customer-friendly changes. I’m planning to write about that later this week.

What do you think? Should the fee be refunded? (I suppose I’m most curious to hear from those who think it shouldn’t.)

[Original photos via Flickr users rynosoft and Unlisted Sightings/CC 2.0]

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55 comments on “Airlines Should Refund Bag Fees If Your Bags Don’t Arrive With You

  1. So, I don’t like the fact that it’d be mandatory. This basically pushes the airlines into being more of a commodity by regulation.

    And the slippery slop argument: I pay the airline to get ME there in time, so I should get a refund of the ticket price if they don’t get me there in a reasonable time? Lets be honest that’d bankrupt the airlines if the DOT passed that regulation, but the logic is the same.

    In my mind this should’ve been a no-brainer for the airlines to implement when they implemented bag fees. I’m sure the people working the luggage claims desk for the airlines wished it was the case.

    Oh, and what if your ticket includes bag fees? Should you get a refund still?

    1. Nicholas-

      Great call on the slippery slope argument and making air service even more commoditized. Commodities, by definition, have uniform standards, and the more the government regulates air service such that practices, fees, policies, etc etc are uniform, the more commoditized the market becomes and the less innovative airlnes can differentiate on something other than price. Also makes for much tougher barriers to entry when it’s even more about cost structure…

      I agree with you that any “smart” airline should have done this from day one, and even now I think it would be a very good pitch: “Most airlines have bag fees, but only on Frontier [airline X, etc] do we refund your fee if your bag doesn’t arrive on the same flight you do. Bags that arrive when you do- guaranteed or your money back!”

    2. Your argument doesn’t make sense to me. It’s one thing for your bag to be delayed because the flight is delayed. In that case, a refund wouldn’t be in order. The rule being proposed is that if your bag is taken off the flight and put on another, then you should get a refund. That is no different than you getting a refund of your ticket if you are involuntarily bumped, not if your flight is delayed.

    3. And the slippery slop argument: I pay the airline to get ME there in time, so I should get a refund of the ticket price if they don’t get me there in a reasonable time?

      I’d say this isn’t quite the same. In the case of baggage delivery, it’s entirely under the airline’s control and that’s not the case for flights. There are weather delays, air traffic control issues, and yes, even mechanicals that aren’t really the airline’s fault. But regardless of the problem, the airline is in full control of what happens to your bag. That’s not necessarily the case when it comes to interlining bags between airlines, but that’s why the airline at fault should be responsible.

      1. Cranky, you’re wrong here.

        The airline is NOT always in full control of your luggage. There are very significant times in which the TSA is in full control of it. Domestically, in many airports the first handoff from a passenger of their newly tagged bag is straight to the TSA screeners, while many others have a full TSA station at the end of the baggage belt leading down from the counter. Either way, that bag can’t be loaded onto an aircraft until the TSA is done with it. If they are understaffed or just abnormally busy, they may be backed up and take too long. Similarly, if when screening they determine a need to unpack the bag to manually screen it, it will take longer. This process also happens upon entry to the country from any internation flight, after the customer has passed through the customs declaration area.

        Simply put, while the DOT totally ignores their cohort government agency’s role in tarmac delays (FAA) in assigning the full penalty to one component of an intricate system, they would also be ignoring another agency’s role here in the TSA. It’s one thing to penalize a carrier for misloading a bag to the wrong destination, or for missing a domestic connection that the passenger was able to make, and I would totally agree that the fee should be refunded in those instances. However, penalizing a carrier for something that the TSA was actually responsible for is a mistake that I think LaHood’s crew will probably make, considering their track record in ignoring the ATC role in tarmac delays.

        1. Good point. So there could be TSA-coded delays where you wouldn’t have to give the refund. I wonder what percent of mishandled bags happen because of TSA-related issues. I’m sure that the airlines know.

          1. Some Airports are better than others depending on the set-up; .i.e. inline screening, pre check-in screening, or re-screening from International flights or just plain staffing. Using publicly available stats from IATA, it would be around 3%.
            But continuing that theme, other causes that could be considered non-Airline related (subject to whose definition you use) would be sortation system failures, Passengers moving to earlier flights, Passengers picking up the wrong bags, Customs delays, plus a whole host of bag mishaps due to weather and ATC which would cause missed connections.

          2. Soooooo…the DOT just released their ruling, and surprise, delayed bags are not required to be reimbursable, only those that are lost forever.

            Whether some Airlines follow Frontier will be the question.

  2. Cranky,

    A few points…

    (1) I strongly agree with you that baggage fees should be refunded.
    (2) I do NOT think the government should get involved in this; more than just me being a libertarian, I think the government will foul it all up (as you mentioned), and create relatively less value than if the airlines figured it out themselves.

    The possible $30/$15 split that you mentioned, for example, probably wouldn’t survive goverment muster- even if it weren’t outlawed initially, the government would inevitably succumb to the whines of people who paid $15 and yet were absolutely OUTRAGED when their bags didn’t show up on the same flight. No one ever reads the fine print, etc…

    Thus, I think that if the government does step in here, there’s going to be a net loss of value- for both the airlines and consumers. Using your example above, and assuming that the price would be $30 with govt intervention, there is probably a substantial group of consumers (myself included, provided that it included ground transportation to my hotel/relative’s house) who would prefer the $15 option, and quite possibly some airlines as well. Finally, the govt tends to prefer “one size fits all” solutions, and that’s not really the best thing for the consumer.

    In the end, I think that consumers need to demand this kind of thing from the airlines, not from the politicians… Maybe some small claims suits would get airlines’ attention, I don’t know. I have no problem with some airlines being less consumer friendly (choosing not to refund baggage fees, for instance) than others, and there’s a great market niche for consumer-unfriendly airlines (see: Spirit, Allegiant, RyanAir). Given proper full disclosure, regulating this would reduce value for everyone, and is not the best solution here. Let the market figure it out, not Washington.

    1. A complete aside, but brought on by the “Given proper full disclosure” comment. I think airlines should have to publish their policies online in a standard format (think Credit Card disclosures, or Nutritional information) AND in a computer readable format. This way others can come in and provide “policy aggregators” so you can better compare airlines..

      1. Totally agreed on this, and I would argue that one of the big reasons that some airlines are able to get away with all the fees etc that many people complain about is BECAUSE there is no standard format where people can take it all in at a glance, and few people want to sort through dozens of pages of miceprint before booking a fare…

        Give people the relevant information in an easy to read format (Nutrition Information is a great example of this), and make it easy to find. If the airline does X or charges Y and it’s stated in the Basic Info for that airline, the consumer should have known that it would/might occur, and have only themselves to blame.

        That actually is a good example of what I think the government should be doing: making sure that the citizens are fully informed and that air service is safe, and then getting out of the way and letting the market figure it out…

    2. I can’t remember if it was here on Cranky or not, but I used that exact example, the nutrition label, somewhere recently. Anyway, that would make it easier for comparing. I would agree that creating a standardized format for disclosure is better than requiring compliance with arbitrary rules.

      On the $15/$30 thing, it was just a random example. I think that the concept could work if the airlines wanted to try it. My guess is that it’s too complex to bother.

  3. I am totally agreed on this, and I would argue that one of the big reasons that some airlines are able to get away with all the fees etc that many people complain about is BECAUSE there is no standard format where people can take it all in at a glance, and few people want to sort through dozens of pages of miceprint before booking a fare…

    Give people the relevant information in an easy to read format (Nutrition Information is a great example of this), and make it easy to find. If the airline does X or charges Y and it’s stated in the Basic Info for that airline, the consumer should have known that it would/might occur, and have only themselves to blame.

    That actually is a good example of what I think the government should be doing: making sure that the citizens are fully informed and that air service is safe, and then getting out of the way and letting the market figure it out…

  4. Agree with most everybody on the two main points.

    1. Bag fees should be refunded if the bags are not delivered or not delivered within “x”. (Not sure what the right time frame is…)

    2. The DOT shouldn’t be the one mandating this.

  5. It’s pretty cruddy to charge a fee, not the deliver the bag in a timely manner, and not compensate the passenger. And plenty of joiurnalistic outrage is appropriate. Customers ought to know which are the passenger-unfriendly airlines.

    But modern day baggage fees aren’t really meaningfully different than when checked bag fees were ‘bundled into price’ and lost bags were an outrage, there was mandated compensation and voluntery compensation. The world hasn’t REALLY changed. Many passengers are just paying separately for their checked bags now.

    Just as the government shouldn’t ban Spirit from charging carry-on fees, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone FLY Spirit, they ought not dictate the terms of contract with passengers over the handling of delayed baggage. The airlines are actually right that it ought to be a point of competition and differentiation in the marketplace. And airlines that don’t see their customers as enemies (eg Delta, Frontier, Alaska — though the in the case of Delta I refer only to the airline and not to their mileage program :) ) will offer better service and that service ought to be highlighted — on this blog and elsewhere.

    Regulating this area will serve not just as a floor but also a ceiling for the treatment of customers, equalizing airline behavior, which for the consumer who cares about the product they fly is not a good thing.

    And really, does the timing and amount of refund of checked baggage fes really warrant the time, monitoring, and enforcement of the federal government? Do we really want to staff agencies to monitor this, to field complaints, to investigate, to file suits? I don’t…

  6. You guys forget the incentve side of things. I airlins have to refund bag fees if the bag comes in late, maybe they will shape up and get the bags on the same flight as the bag owners!

    I do like Frontier’s ability to differentiate themselves on this point…and I have never had baggage issues with F9 for the roughly 3.5 years that I’ve flown them. That just means that some (poor baggage handling) airlines will be hit harder than others for this.

    Of course, all of my ire could be due to an AA flight where I was forced to gate check at the last minute, forced to pay for the gate check, and then forced to wait until 4am the next morning to get my bag.

    1. Airlines already do a very good job of getting bags to customers on time when you consider the complexity of the system. One of the best things they ever did to help that was . . . the bag fee. Less volume makes it a lot easier!

  7. A bag fee is really buying a ticket for your checked bag to fly on the airplane, just as you buy a ticket to fly on the airplane. If the airlines have to start refunding if your bag doesn’t make your flight, they will just start saying you have to buy a ticket for your checked bag and as long as they get it from city A to city B in a reasonable time they will be ok, just the way it applies to you.

    And a two-tier system wouldn’t work, pay $40 (or whatever) and your bag will travel with you or $20 and it will arrive within 24hrs. The airlines will not bring it to your hotel or home, you will have to return to the airport to get it. Would that really be saving money to pay a cheaper bag fee at time of flying? Not for me.

    When you check a bag and pay a fee now, do they guarantee your bag will arrive with you? If they do say that and it doesn’t then they need to refund the fee.

  8. I continue to fail to understand the logic of nickel and diming the passenger with extra nuisance fees on top of the airfare. I’ve discussed this with my co-workers, friends, family and business associates, and there is a general consensus among us that airlines should charge one honest fare and eliminate the extra fees. If I paid a bag fee and the bag did not show up at baggage claim, I’d immediately demand a refund of the fee and if the airline refused I’d dispute the charge with my credit card.

    1. Nice try. Then your “family and business associates” would be on the front lines bitching about how expensive it’s become to fly. At least now, there are lots of ways for a smart flyer to avoid fees. If it was all wrapped up into one bottom line price, you would just be paying more with no hope of relief. In what possible universe is that a better option?

      1. Also, the “nickel and diming” is generating the airlines millions if not billions of dollars per year. I’m fine with this charging extra fees, simply because I rarely pay them – I almost never check bags domestically, don’t mind sitting in the middle of the plane, and don’t care about boarding first. Some people do, and they pay. Works for everyone.
        Although I do agree that you should get some sort of compensation if your bags arrive really late (shorter delays are unavoidable, but anything above 24 hrs is careless) – regardless of if you paid bag fees or not.

    2. That general consensus is not shared by all, that’s for sure. I think that a la carte pricing is perfectly fine and has made the industry far healthier. I just wish they did a better job of selling that all up front.

      1. You’re entitled to your opinion, but to encourage good behavior I fly southwest and jetBlue even if the fare is a bit higher. I appreciate being quoted an up-front fare and resent being nickel-and-dimed.

  9. As a CSR, working bag claims is its own circle of hell for both agents and passengers alike. The inability of us agents to refund bag fees on bags arriving 12, 24, 48 hours late just makes this part of air travel hell that much hotter. I can accept and defend most of my company’s fees and policies, but this is a tough one to say with a straight face: sorry, no refunds even though your bags are a day late. If it’s a particularly awful case of disservice we are allowed to offer travel credits for future travel on our airline. However, as often as not, the passenger has no wish to ever fly us again. Another tough one to say with a straight face: you can apply for a refund on the airline’s website. <>

    Personally, I agree with many here: keep the government out of it. That would just create yet another ring in the ever-expanding airline circus. I’d like to see airlines adopt Alaska’s policy: something that tells the passenger what the service standard is, be it 20, 30, 60 minutes of arrival, or whatever, and spells out what the airline will do if the standard is not met. Simple, flexible, and lets airlines differentiate themselves.

    1. I’d even be okay with service standards differing by airports. I checked a bag once arriving into LAS on a flight that was scheduled to arrive at 11:26 pm, I’m pretty sure it was ontime too, but that was three years ago. It took like 45 minutes for the bags to arrive at baggage claim. I was really annoyed, especially given that I had been up since 4:30 that morning…

      This was before Alaska charged first bag fees, or offered the credit. Anyone know how Alaska is doing at LAS now?

  10. What happens to people with platinum status or airline credit cards or other such things that waive baggage fees. If their bags don’t show up are they just SOL because they have “status” that waives fees up front? Or would the airlines just throw more miles at them and hope it’s enough? I agree that this is far too complicated an issue for the Fed’s to get involved with. Each airline should implement their own policies that work for their customers.

  11. I agree that something needs to be done. Since the airlines aren’t governing themselves fairly – Seriously, you want me to pay a fee but you don’t have to deliver in a reasonable amount of time?” – The Government will probably step in at some point.

    If they had a more visible simple policy then this wouldn’t be an issue. But there should be set period of time for delivery, maybe 3 hours.

    1. Three hours? In many cases this’d allow them to put the bag on the next flight. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to spend three hours sitting at the airport, and I’m not sure they’d deliver the bag to your hotel for that..

  12. If I’m paying a fee, that means my bag will be on the carousel within 30 minutes of my leaving the aircraft. Since that usually gives the baggage handlers a 10-minute head start, I have never been remotely close to having to test this. Darn right, though, that I would file a claim with my credit card company.

    My bigger beef is when I pay a fee only to arrive at the gate and find that free bag service is offered to those loutish cheapskates who otherwise would have tried to cram their oversized carry-ons into nonexistent bin space. It makes those of us who pay the fees feel like chumps. I would like to see more stringent enforcement of size and bag limits.

    More power to those who have one carry-on that can fit in the bin. But too many people are trying to game the system with oversize and/or additional bags.

  13. Sure, baggage fees should be refunded if the bag doesn’t arrive with the passenger, but if this is federally mandated for all airlines isn’t the end result that baggage fees will rise to pay for this?

    To have a two-tiered payment system for baggage would probably be too unwieldy– how would you know that your bag didn’t make the flight? Would you have to wait at the carousel until all the bags had arrived? The added expense of a text-messaging system? I’d have to believe that very few people would exchange the $15 in your example for the hassle.

    BTW, great photo–if there was any truth in advertising that’s what the gov’t should mandate!

  14. About a year ago, my wife and I flew SNA/JFK for a wedding. Our bags didn’t arrive until 2 days later, when we were leaving the hotel to go back to JFK. AA even charged us to check the bags HOME! We never even opened them.

  15. I wonder if one of the reasons Alaska can already do this, is that they outsource a large amount of their ground handling, so they probably pass this risk onto the handler?

    One other thought, Alaska often scans each bag as it hits the baggage claim. In Seattle they have someone doing it manually(!) believe it or not…

    1. I would be amazed if Alaska had this in the baggage handling contracts, but it’s something that should be in there. But believe me, Alaska isn’t the only one outsourcing bag handling. I think this is just a customer-focused airline.

      Alaska is also not the only one doing scanning. I’ve written about US Airways and its work in this area, but many are increasingly using scanning to keep an eye on bags.

      1. Any airline that doesn’t put performance metrics like this in the contract should fire their procurement folks.

        I was saying that Alaska does carrousel side scanning, does US Airways do that?

  16. If the bag does not arrive with your flight a FULL refund is in order; because you may be going on from the airport city by car,ship or tour.
    Example; 1 bag does not make connection in Paris–so 1 bag short in Barcelona.
    Departing on cruise ship from Barcelona. Since we had 2 days in Barcelona–we got it in time–but had we had a tight connection with ship—SOL BABY

  17. I think this should be looked at slightly differently. It is not only the cost to the airline and refunding of fees that is important, there is also the question of the extra expense that the airline’s failure to perform has caused for the traveller.

    If I pay someone to do something, and they fail to do it, not only should I get some of the money back as CF is suggesting, but also, they should recompense me for my losses as a result of their failure to perform. Do I have to go back to the airport in my own time and expense to get the bags? Do I have to purchase something that I need in a hurry?

    Now, in this situation, a practical solution would be an extra amount to be refunded, say up to the cost of the ticket, or payment of substantiated costs on submission of the receipts.

    Bluntly, if I have paid someone to do something, they agree to do it, and then I make a loss because of them not performing, I feel I have every right to ask them to make up my loss.

    1. If an airline mishandles your bag, then they will deliver it to you in nearly all cases that I’ve seen. And the airlines all have policies on what sort of compensation can be offered for incidentals. If this gets regulated by the feds as well, then the airlines might just stop transporting bags altogether and let FedEx do it. That ain’t cheap.

  18. I chuckle at all the people saying it’s a good or needed idea, but the government should stay out of it. Outside of a couple instances cited by CF, I don’t see the airlines doing it on their own.

  19. Here is my solution. Mandatory 100 percent of matching bags with passengers aboard the airplanes with a zero tolerance policy. The Federal Government should whack the airlines with a 250K fine for EACH and EVERY mishandled/lost bag. There should be a small RFID chip on each baggage tag so each bag could be tracked and there should be NO excuse for ANY lost or mishandled bag.

    1. So you’re wanting to pay $20.000 to fly between LAX and JFK in a middle non reclining coach seat?

      Besides the TSA already did away with the bag matching requirement when they rolled out the current luggage scanning machines.

    2. Let’s say Dale’s idea is implemented. How will he feel the first time one of his fellow passengers gets drunk or sick or is held at the TSA checkpoint and misses his flight, and said flight is delayed for half an hour while digging through the baggage compartment for that person’s specific bags?

      How about when a fellow passenger is actually on the plane, but customs agents have determined that the electronic equipment they bought overseas needs some extra personal inspection, and the flight is delayed while they manually look through it for an indeterminate amount of time? What if they don’t allow it into the country and send it back where it came from, as they often do?

    3. Positive bag match takes away flexibility that the airlines need to run the operation smoothly. It simply won’t happen on domestic flights. Some airlines try to do it on domestic flights, but it’s never 100% because of other constraints, such as weight limits on express aircraft.

      As far as bag fee refunds go, there’s too many moving parts in the equation to nail it down to just the airline. There isn’t enough visibility right now into every step in the bag’s journey (and why it went that way) to be able to do it right. CR you assume too much in thinking that airlines know how much MBR is due to TSA, etc. Without diligent load and unload scanning they can’t even nail down how much is OA.

      In practice, government regulations are going to make the airlines take hits for OAL, TSA, CBP, and airport vendor faults. This is how the MBR numbers work now. To do it right, the technology needs to be in place to isolate those transfers. Some airlines are closer than others to that, but it also involves the local airport administrations and the feds. It’s nigh impossible right now to get a WAP installed in an airport bagroom so I have little confidence the required tracking system could be put in place to do it right unless something changes.

  20. Hey, Crank, just short while ago you were advocating for airline fees based on the presumption that charging fees would provide incentive to the airlines to do a better job (related to that task). If they screw up and still keep the money, where’s the incentive? So, yah, like you, I think that if the bag don’t show, they owe you the dough – show on time, that is, else all of the dough, including overweight charges, etc. NOTE, if the bag doesn’t show at all, they already will owe a lot more, and should. Fed EX offers a refund if the package is “so much as 60 seconds late” and they have more variables to deal with. I also think any “scheme” which involves partial payment, a description longer then about 3 sentences, or “refunds” with vouchers, are all was to try and shirk responsibility and avoid responsibility for poor service. Vouchers, for example, tend not to be redeemed, hence they are basically exchanging good money for play money. “Man up” airlines, if you wanna charge for it, take responsibility for it. Oh, and I don’t think luggage fees are really in the airlines best interest; it makes it harder to maximize their equipment utilization, a much greater cost!

  21. I take the view that baggage fees are in fact a contract for specific performance. I.E. you pay the fee so that your bag will travel with you and arrive with you. I am compelled to point that the big package delivery companies provide service guarantees. Even a residential ground United Parcel Service Shipments comes with a standard service guarantee. We guarantee to attempt delivery within X business days of shipment. If they don’t, there is a no arguments refund.

    You pay the carrier a fee for a specific service: Your bag is on the same flight you are on. If they don’t provide that specific service for the specific fee, you should be entitled to a refund of the fee because the carrier didn’t fulfil their contractual obligations.

  22. If the airlines are smart, they’ll come up with something proactively like Alaska did. It’s hard for the DOT to argue for intervention if the airlines have already put a fair policy in place voluntarily.

  23. Just wanted to say that I read the article on and wanted to mention my one instance of having this issue with Southwest. In May, I took a trip on Southwest and it was the first time that I have ever not had a bag arrive with the plane that I was on. Upon talking with their customer service, and giving them my contact information, they had my bag within two hours and immediately gave me a $50 voucher for a future flight.

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