The painful truth about luggage fees your airline doesn’t want you to know

The painful truth about luggage fees your airline doesn’t want you to know

We got yet another painful reminder of how fee-crazy the airline industry has become when this video clip went viral yesterday. As if we needed one.

In it, two soldiers returning from Afghanistan describe how Delta Air Lines charged the 34 men in their unit more than $2,800 in excess baggage fees. The disclosure outraged many and forced the airline to issue a rare public apology.

But behind the incident is a truth the airline industry in general, and Delta in particular, would probably prefer you don’t know: Airlines are not really sorry they charge for luggage. In fact, they depend on luggage fees to turn a profit. Delta collected an impressive $733 million in baggage fees in just the first nine months of 2010, according to the Transportation Department. That’s close to twice as much as the number-two airline, American.

A recent survey suggested the worldwide airline industry collected $21 billion in so-called ancillary revenues last year, although that number may be a conservative estimate. Even so, it represents a 38 percent increase from the previous year and a 96 percent increase from 2008.

The worst offenders? As a percentage of overall revenue, the domestic leaders are Allegiant, which derived nearly 30 percent of its revenues from extra fees, followed by Spirit Airlines (22 percent) and United Airlines (14 percent).

So, what, exactly is ridiculous about earning money from fees?

Nothing. And everything.

It is, of course, completely acceptable to price your product any way you want, as long as it’s legal. So if Delta or Spirit can offer a low “base” fare and then charge extra for luggage, meals, drinks or seat assignments, that’s perfectly fine with most passengers.

But air travelers have a problem with two issues: the rhetoric and disclosure.

For the last few years, the airline industry has made a variety of dishonest claims related to fees. First, it said it was adding a surcharge for the first checked bag to cover higher fuel costs, but when fuel prices dropped, it kept the fee. It also said that by unbundling prices, it wanted to give customers more “options” and lower fares. Problem is, they never actually lowered fares when they added fees for services that used to be included in the ticket price. They just started charging more for something that used to be included in the ticket price.

That upsets some passengers.

“It leaves such a bad taste in my mouth,” says Diane Olivier, who recently paid more than $60 to get seat assignments on a British Airways flight. “One assumes when you are paying over $1,600 for a ticket and you book early it comes with a seat of your choice.”

The second problem is the way in which these extras are revealed. Airlines routinely broadside their customers with fees, either informing them of the extras immediately after their ticket purchase or when they arrive at the airport.

When Mayer Nudell recently tried to check his bag curbside in Long Beach, Calif., for example, he was told there’d be a fee for the privilege. Had his airline, JetBlue, bothered to tell him about the surcharge? No. “I discovered it at the airport,” he says.

Of course, Nudell could have said “no” and checked his luggage at the ticket counter. But others aren’t so fortunate. They find they must either pay hundreds of dollars for their bags or abandon their personal belongings at the airport. And they feel the airline has them over a barrel.

Passenger advocates claim airlines benefit from these poorly-disclosed fees — indeed, that the airline industry has built a business model on deception. That could change when the government’s new fee disclosure rules go into effect later this summer. The Transportation Department has also promised additional regulations on fares in 2012.

In the meantime, don’t believe an airline when it says it’s sorry for charging you a fee.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Susan K.

    Really though – why should the industry be ‘sorry’ about charging fees? Sure, you don’t like them, but you don’t have to pay them (either don’t check luggage or fly another airline).

    Airlines are a business, not a charity.

  • Meg

    But if an airline does not disclose certain fees prior to purchase, how can one decide not to pay them by flying another airline? Like Chris, I recognize the fact that these airline companies may price their services as they wish, but the federal government’s disclosure rules are absolutely necessary to allow customers to make informed decisions about ticket purchases.

  • Robert E. Coli

    At Thromby Air we know that you’ll understand the important role of luggage fees…

  • behindbj

    The soldiers getting charged for baggage?  Total mountain out of a molehill.  The contracts for official travel held between carriers and the US Govt contain things like how many bags can be checked for free.  In this case (from the articles I read), there was some confusion whether it was three or four. 

    Bethat as that may, even if they each had 15 bags, the excess baggage fees are reimbursable under orders.  At least, it’s on all of my orders.  When I travel with the military and carry tons of equipment, I get my money back with my travel reimbursement.  So they are out-of-pocket noghint, particularly if they put it on their travel charge cards.  There are many outrageous and disrespectful things that happen to soldiers that should not, but this isn’t one of them.  I prefer to save my outrage for other issues. 

  • behindbj

    Sorry – “nothing.”  Wouldn’t let me save an edit.

  • Susan K.

    The airlines really do disclose them on their websites and when you buy the ticket – all you have to do is not be completely ignorant by assuming that everything is free.

  • Pharty

    Also, Delta worked things out in the end by refunding the fees. Miscommunications do happen, and things like this can’t always be avoided. But if they are dealt with in the end, no harm is done.

  • brandinius

    Original video was pulled by the uploader. Mirror here:

  • Rosered7033

    Honest?  Yes.  Transparent?  No.  I spent more than 10 mins. on an airline website looking for info on baggage fees: in frustration, I called my “travel agent” (online website), who misinformed me.  I finally called the airline, which I was avoiding because it is a low-cost carrier and phone calls are a low-priority.  Some airline websites are more difficult to maneuver and less user-friendly, so even though I voted “yes”, I know it takes more time (on some sites) to jump through the hoops to get the desired info.

  • emanon256

    I don’t understand how any one is NOT aware of these fees?  They are all over TV, the newspapers, the Internet.  Since the first airline started charging a baggage fee, it made headlines everywhere.  How did people not hear about hits?

    Also, every time I book a ticket, I see a note on the screen that says there may be a charge for baggage, or with this ticket, there will be no charge, etc. It seems very transparent to me.  However I avoid sites like Expedia because I have had nothing but problems when using them, I only book with the airlines directly.

    To say that people bought a ticket and then had to abandon their belongings at the airport seems asinine to me!

    And with the fees for seats, you don’t have to pick the best seats, you can still rite in the back, or the middle.  Yes its not as great, but its not that much worse.  You still get to the same place.

    I just fail to see how anyone cannot be aware of baggage fees anymore!

    Although, I do believe that these should be waived for Military travailing on orders, but thats up to the airline, and mearly my opinion.

  • Bill

    If the fees are refundable to those travelling on orders and they were on orders, then this is much ado about nothing.

  • Brooklyn

    In addition to the extortionate bag checking fees, many airlines have lowered the maximum weight per bag from around 70 pounds to closer to 50. While it’s true that business travel is often an overnight affair and can be managed with a carry-on, longer trips generally require a checked bag and this should be included in the price of the ticket.  Making people cram everything into their hand luggage just slows down boarding and if the airlines start weighing the hand luggage too, there will be an outcry the likes of which we’ve never seen. How long before they realize that alienating their client base will lead to re-regulation in the long run?

  • Karen C.

    Chris, I think your curbside example doesn’t fit in with this extra fee talk — it’s my understanding that you always paid an extra fee (and also a tip) when you checked your bag curbside just for the convenience and avoiding the possibility of having to stand in a long line.

    What I have a problem with is how the airlines up the fee for each bag you check so if by any chance you really need to check a large number of bags, it becomes prohibitive. Why would the 4th bag cost the airlines $200 to transport while it only costs them $25 to transport the first one?

  • Kathy

    I’m with emanon256 – how can people no know about these fees? I just booked with Jet Blue over American yet again, because I get one checked bag free. And unless you’re moving house, how come you need more than one  smallish bag? I travel abroad for months with one checked bag weighing less than 11 kilos (22 lbs).

  • cjr001

    Why is there confusion in the first place?

    If there’s a contract, it should be pretty simple for the airline to say who’s right: the soldiers or the airline?

  • Tom Thornton

    Fly Southwest whenever you can. Make sure and evaluate add on fees from other airlines when comparing Southwest prices. The only to fight back on the fees is to not give them your business. 

  • Nancy Marine Dickinson

    In reading an article about this on another site, it would seem these soldiers had orders that stated they were permitted to check four bags free of charge.  Additionally, one of the bags they wanted to check was a weapons case filled with tens or thousands of weapons, sans ammunition.  These guys have spent the better part of a year being inseparable from their weapons and they don’t take giving them up lightly!

    Also, most of these soldiers didn’t have a credit card – opting to not bring the military issued card with them to a war zone.  Nor did most of them have the cash – no ATMs in the Afghani desert.  Their Lt. Colonel ended up paying for the majority of them.

    Yes, the military will reimburse them but that is a process that can take weeks and, trust me, this is a group of people who are already living hand to mouth given they haven’t gotten an appreciable raise in two years.

    Unfortunately, too many people take the attitude of behindbj and they say, “So what?  It’s not like they won’t be reimbursed by the government!”  If less people would take this stance, our government’s budget would be reduced by more than you think.

    Military families are routinely stolen from when they move.  Unethical moving companies, contracted to safely and efficiently move families thousands of miles a year, will rob a family blind if they can get away with it.  This is done to the tune of millions of dollars a year.  Every one of my siblings was in the military or married to military personnel (myself included) and every one of us has had family heirlooms stolen as well as things bought when stationed both CONUS and OCONUS.  

    As my husband also works for a contractor, as well as being retired from the military, I won’t even get started on the claims paid by employers such as his.  It should be criminal to feel it’s okay to steal from government travelers because the government will reimburse them.

    These are your tax dollars paying for this, folks!  If Delta told you as an individual that you had to pay $2800 for baggage fees, you’d be furious!

    Companies like Delta do this because there are too many people who think, “So what?  The government will pay for it.”

  • DavidS

    I am dumbfounded why consumers continue flock to airlines like Allegiant and Spirit yet continue to complain about fees for baggage, seat assignments and baggage.

    I buy a seat (not allways pre-assigned), fly with a backpack (personal item) and legal sized rollaboard (carry on item). If I plan to check a bag, I know the fee upfront.

    If I have to pay extra for a window, aisle or near the front…I may just sit in a middle in the back. Been there, done that when feeling cheap.

    Yes most airlines put the fees in place to cover fuel, but you know what? They were such a success that they are now a key to profitability.

    Southwest has the hidden fees as well, want a better seat? Pay extra to check in early. We’ve all heard about the Southwest effect on initially bringing fares down in the markets they serve, but once they capture market share they bring them up!

  • Joe Farrell

    the truly funny thing was that if, at 6am Eastern time on 08 Jun, if you looked zt Delta’s baggage policy it stated that service members could have FOUR checked bags in coach for free. . . not three-  They had not yet updated their baggage policy to 4 Y / 5F-C and it still stated that 4 bags were permitted . . . .

    So – this problem was caused by gate agents @ BWI not having a clue as to DL’s own existing policy at the time . . . .which results purely from DL’s own bad training.  Moreover, it also results from DL not allowing its employees to override its systems to print out another bag tag without payment – meaning that intelligent human being using their brains and common sense could have protected the airline from this PR disaster if they were allowed to exercise discretion and print a 4th tag for the 14 members of the party who had a 4th bag and were charged extra . . . .

    When a company takes discretion away from its staff to do the right thing – as was the case here- thats when PR disasters occur – by placing money over empowering employees DL’s management is utterly and completely to blame. . . .

  • Lindaj

    Actually, it IS much ado about nothing.  Most of these soldiers coming/going are enlisted with very limited funds.  Some of them do not even have credit cards much less a wad of cash in their pockets.  To have to come up with $$ at the last minute is not right!!  Delta screwed up!!!  Plain and simple.

  • Guest

    Susan, when was the last time you bought an airline ticket? A person goes to Expedia. She clicks “Sort by price” and buys the cheapest fare. She gets to the airport and discovers it’s going to cost her an extra $60 to travel with her two checked suitcases. Maybe now that people like Chris are spreading the word, more people are aware — but I’d be willing to bet that if you took a survey at your local airport, you could easily find dozens of casual travelers, people who only fly every few years, who were blindsided by the fees.

    People don’t always have a choice, Susan. If you want to fly to some remote location that is only served by, say, American and United, and you don’t have status with either one, what other choice do you have, aside from driving or taking the bus?

    It’s a scam. It’s bait-and-switch. It’s an effort to get better Expedia/Orbitz placement. And it should be illegal.

  • Guest

    I would guess that the higher fees for multiple bags might be to discourage people from using the airline as a same-day parcel shipping service. But that’s just a guess.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Wish there was a way to “Love” this, rather than merely “Like”-ing it.

  • Chris in NC

    … and another untold tragedy is that the gate agent @ BWI along with the low level management team will probably get “written up” or “demerits” from the pencil pushers at corporate headquarters for somehow messing this up.

  • bodega

    When I make a reservation in my GDS, even just to price an itinerary, all fees come up for me to quote to clients.  I recently made my mom’s reservation with UA on their website, using her miles, and the fees came up there, too. 
    BTW Brooklyn, most of the carriers have had the 50lb limit for years, and it even applies to biz and first class passengers.

  • Carver


    How do you know that the soldiers don’t even have credit cards or sufficient cash?

  • behindbj

    I take that attitude – as you put it – because the outrage is that they were charged for bags, and it was supposedly coming out of their pockets.  My point was – it wouldn’t have come out of their pockets.

    If you really want to vent outrage at tiny things, that’s great.  Keep in mind:  Government contract airfare is generally much much HIGHER than airfare someone gets online for general travel (the tickets are totally refundable and completely flexible – but are not first class.  They are coach.).  This airfare comes with a certain amount of bags checked for free.  Their orders may have said 4 bags, but the counter folks thought the contract was 3.  It was a mix-up.

    All of the other issues you discuss are issues, and those are ones that I get involved with, as well (movers ripping off military families, etc).  But, again, this is not one of them.

    If folks are upset about this coming out their pockets, how dare they, etc – it’s not the case.  If folks are upset that military folks were charged for excess baggage (reimbursable or not), that’s another issue.  I don’t agree with everything that people can have reimbursed on official travel (like tips).  But that’s not what folks were raging about.

  • Steve R

    @Chris: “It also said that by unbundling prices, it wanted to give customers more
    “options” and lower fares. Problem is, they never actually lowered
    fares when they added fees for services that used to be included in the
    ticket price.” It’s a fallacy to assume that because base fares did not drop, unbundling did not save consumers money. Airlines could have raised fares rather than keeping them the same and adding baggage fees. For example, say a flight was $300 before, and now it’s $300 with a $50 checked bag fee. Without unbundling, it’s possible that the base fare would now be $350 for everyone, regardless of whether or not they need to check a bag.

    One can have the opinion that it’s better to raise base fares and include more services in that base fare (like checked luggage, meals, etc); that’s fine. But it’s shortsighted to claim that because base fares did not go down when baggage fees were introduced, the consumer got screwed.

    Personally, I don’t find it all that complicated to determine what bag fees I may have to pay based on the luggage I expect to bring, and plan accordingly.

  • Carver


    “how can you need more than one smallish bag?”

    Perhaps you are more than 5’1, 110 lb; perhaps you need business attire, perhaps you a traveling to multiple temperate zones. Perhaps you carry medicine or equipment with you.  Different people have different needs

  • Mark K

    Nope, the curbside fee has not been around forever.  The curbside fees for checking baggage started the same time the checked baggage fees started.  One airline, I think it was United, stated they started the curbside fees because tips all but disappeared when the checked baggage fees started and the curside check in workers were upset about lost income.  The curbside fees are supposed to go directly to the workers there (but somehow I doubt it does).

    The airline fees are structured to discourage those actions by the passengers where the fees are highest.  So it is true that it really doesn’t cost the airline any more to transport your 4th bag as it does your 1st bag.  The escalating price is to prevent everyone from checking their entire hoursehold belongings every time they fly.  There is limited space in the cargo hold as well as weight limitations so there really is not enough room for every passenger to bring 4 bags and so the pricing is set to discourage that.

  • Mark K

    I think the main reason for the outrage is that Delta, like most airlines, is taking advantage of the fact that these excess baggage fees for military travelers will be reimbursed by the government and they see it as a way to generate more income.  After all, the soldiers are not getting hurt since they get the money back and the US government has deep pockets so a few hundred dollars here and there isn’t even noticed, right?

    This just points out a bigger problem at the airlines of lack of training.  Not saying that every employee should know every rule, but they should check when an issue comes up instead of firmly standing by their opinion.  These days, you can’t question anything a ticket or gate agent tells too strongly or you run the risk of being denied boarding or having the police called because you are a problem passenger. 

  • David

    Reluctantly, I agree with you Susan.  As long as it’s disclosed, I have no problem with it.  And it can be avoided.  Get a Delta gold card.  Ship luggage UPS Ground a few days beforehand and do a return label.  Bring food on board (it’s better for you anyway).  Even bring your booze in the airline size minibottles and put them in your 1-qt bag (yup, TSA doesn’t care as long as it fits.)  And as you say, “CHOICE” is your power  (I’ve flow Southwest more since baggage fees appeared)

  • James M.

    It Delta was truly, sorry, oops they are sorry. I mean apologetic, they would not only refund the fees they charged these soldiers plus given them a flight voucher. This is the height of audacity and the agents involved should be fired.

  • GHolman

    What about a person who sorts by price and has no suitcases? The cheapest fare really is the cheapest fare.

    Why is it so unreasonable to charge extra? 10 years ago people were not going to the airport with 5 suitcases and expecting them all to be free. Why should people now?

  • Clare

    Behind bj, what you are saying is, this is not a problem because the soldiers won’t have to pay Delta–the US taxpayers will.  As a taxpayer, why should I not be outraged about that? 

  • LeeAnneClark

    Or perhaps, like me, you are a scuba diver and need to carry your gear.  With current weight limitations, my options appear to be clothes or dive gear.  Not much of a choice, when you are talking about life support equipment.  Guess I’m going to have to wear my wetsuit to dinner on my upcoming vacation.

  • Bob

    Actually, the soldiers would have military travel charge cards. They are not out of pocket on this.

  • David

    You know what — it’s part of the “extra” fees American or United can charge by serving a location that isn’t served by every airline.  When I flew to Rock Springs, WY what I was really thankful for was that, well, somebody actually FLEW to Rock Springs, WY!  They’re flying a plane to Rock Springs — am I gonna quibble about a luggage fee?   

  • Carver

    Steve R

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.  I often travel without checking bags.  I ‘d rather the baggage fee be seperated out

  • Lindabator

    To even QUIBBLE about the number of bags, when these guys have just returned from fighting for the freedom Delta enjoys daily to SCREW every other flier out there shows just how little class their employees have, much less their compassion.  Believe me, if this had happened when I had been in line, the video would have gone out BEFORE they ever got on the plane!!!!

  • Filip

    But when Southwest is $100+ more than Delta, United or other airlines, that’s just stupid. Especially if you don’t need to check any bags.

  • Pharty

    “While it’s true that business travel is often an overnight affair and
    can be managed with a carry-on, longer trips generally require a checked
    bag and this should be included in the price of the ticket.”

    Well, if you are comparing fares for business travel (or don’t need a checked bag for whatever reason), then shouldn’t the price of a checked bag be excluded?

    Of course, it would be good if you could search with different criteria depending on what you need, but having one checked bag isn’t a better ‘default’ than none.

  • Vladimir

    It IS much ado about nothing.
    Just another excuse for Chris to complain about fees…

  • badbadwebbis

    Actually, 10 years ago people only expected 2 bags to be free. Then we expected 1 bag to be free. Then we learned to pack carefully and use a carry-on. Now we fear that we will be charged for the carry-on one day in the near future.

    Prices, even adjusted for the 10-year time span, do not appear to have gotten any cheaper with the unbundling move. I would say that the average air traveller is worse off today that she was 10 years ago. I have 2 flights tomorrow, and I have no idea whether I will have a seat on the longer flight. I am ticketed and confirmed, but the only available seats are ones for which you have to pay extra. I’m afraid I’ll be sitting in the bathroom for 2.5 hours tomorrow….

    I think I’ve gotten off-topic. Sorry.

  • GHolman

    However, in the 10-year time span, costs have gone way up (fuel) and the dollar has gotten weaker. Tickets have stayed the same price rather than get very expensive to keep up with costs.

  • Sfox

    Perhaps because I was traveling to Mongolia for five weeks, carrying expensive camera equipment that had to go on the plane with me, requiring me to check a largish duffle for the sleeping bag, sleeping pad, hiking boots, art supplies and clothes to cover a possible 50F in 24 hour temperature shift, as can happen on a two week camping trip in Mongolia. Not to mention a box full of sewing supplies, sketchbooks, pens and other gifts for Mongol people who I work with. What is it with people who think they and what they do are the measure of all things for everyone else? Sheesh.

  • Decent_American

    Hold on a minute, It is obvious that you haven’t heard of EAS (Essiential Air Service) That flight to RKS was paid for by our own federal government at a cost of around $400 PER SEAT. not per passenger. Great Lakes Airlines generates over 1/3 of its revenue from flying to places nobody wants to go but paid for by the taxpayers.

  • Nobody

    The federal govment is on the verge of collapse.  I think Delta should step up to the plate and not charge for any baggage from the army, even it the soldier is bringing home a jeep in pieces.  Delta and their passengers should subsidize the army rather that the soldiers turn in recipts and get reimbursed by the govment for luggage fees.  I have to fund the govment with taxes.

  • John Conner

    Airlines cannot be blamed for charging any kind of fees. If you dont like the price, shop elsewhere… Staycation? Cruise? Drive?

  • flutiefan

    i’m so glad you wrote everything i was thinking, so i don’t have to type as much!

  • flutiefan

    please don’t blame the rank-and-file front line employees.  often it is their managers and supervisors who threaten them with firing if they so much as bend a rule.

  • flutiefan

    no they should not.

  • John52

    That’s not the airlines’ problem if someone chooses to buy their ticket through a travel agency. Then, it becomes the travel agency’s responsibility to inform customers of any additional fees. How does a company like Delta possibly have control over what Travelocity or Expedia puts or doesn’t put on its website? If someone books through an airline’s website directly, all of these fees are clearly disclosed.

  • Scott

    By this justification, the idiocy you display in this post stating that agents should be fired for attempting to follow a corporate policy means that you should be fired from whatever position somebody erroneously hired you for in the first place.

  • Sam

    I have found the best airline to fly as of 2010 and 2011 is Air Tran. All of there fees are disclosed and they did not charge for drinks or snacks. For $49 upgrade to business class which includes first 2 bags free and unlimited  adult beverages. I was like a kid in a candy store and felt like a first class passenger for $49. They have my business for as long as they fly in my area.

  • Moodyblues555

    The company treats numerous employees just as rotten as it does its customers — deceitful and dishonest! Its a company that needs to get rid of its management and treat employees fairly instead of deceiving them. They instruct their employees not to offer information about baggage fees, etc unless specifically asked that question. Why do you think they made so much money in profit? When asked specifically the management denies this, but it was recently all over the news how the airlines hid fees and made a huge profit. They’re liars! Do you think the employees just all gained up and decided not to inform passengers about fees unless asked? Their employees are unhappy because many of them are treated like garbage and the newer employees are ripped off big time to pay for the older employees pensions and high pay and benefits plus the managements huge vacations and pay. They’re liars and cheats trying hard to hang onto their big bucks while screwing the underlings! Where else can you make $30/hr answering a phone without so much as a high school education? That’s why you’re getting screwed! And that’s not counting the huge vacations and benefits packages. Plus the executives want their big bucks too. The newer employees don’t get all extravagance. They’re lied to and screwed over everytime they turned around, just like the customers! And the government employees have their airfare paid for with big discounts while soldiers pay regular mostly higher fares. That’s American Airlines for you! Rotten to the core! Let’s make sure they’re forgiven their fines for violations though!

  • Pammers1216

    Actually the fee for early check in isn’t for a better seat but the opportunity to get an early boarding number so you have more choice of what tiny seat you get to sit in. All seats are the same on SWA. And I don’t consider that a hidden fee. They are very upfront about it. It is also an option that doesn’t really affect your travel (like your luggage). You can get an early boarding pass number for free by getting your boarding pass by checking in for your flight 24 hours before it leaves. Also SWA had the lowest fares for quite a few years because they took a gamble, signed a long term fuel contract. Now that contract is over and they’ve had to raise prices accordingly.  I’ve been flying SWA for over 15 years, I always check prices with other airlines in the area (since I live in a large metro area I usually do have that option depending on where I’m going, unlike other people who may have limited airline choices) and SWA usually had the cheapest prices. Now that their fuel contract is over, their prices aren’t quite that low, comparable to others. But sometimes a special sale will help out on a lower price.