Wait, you charge how much for carry-on bags?

By | September 16th, 2016

When you fly, there is a surcharge for everything. Barbara Murphy-Sanders wishes she’d known that — and we wish we could have told her — before she booked her tickets.

Murphy-Sanders and her husband, both of whom are senior citizens, were planning a trip to the Grand Canyon with Road Scholar, an educational travel tour program that caters mostly to elderly clients. As Road Scholar doesn’t book flights, Murphy-Sanders and her husband purchased air tickets for $440 through Orbitz on Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines.

They were about to get a hard lesson in airline fees. Many of our readers have already learned, in some cases the hard way, that airlines charge for whatever they can in addition to the base fare. But not everyone is aware of this, including Murphy-Sanders and her husband, who do not fly often and are not computer-savvy.

They were shocked to discover that Spirit was charging them $55 per bag and Frontier was charging them $30 per bag for carry-on fees. As Murphy-Sanders puts it, “If there had been any indication that carry-on bags would also be charged we would never have booked these flights. We feel cheated.”

Although they learned from Orbitz that “All prices include taxes and fees and are quoted in U.S. dollars. Your two one-way fares may be processed through multiple transactions” and “The airline may charge additional fees for checked baggage or other optional services,” they did not realize that they would be charged for carry-on bags because Orbitz gave them no specific indication that their airlines would do so.

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And although it could be argued that Murphy-Sanders and her husband might have checked out the websites of both Spirit or Frontier, where they would have found that both airlines do indeed charge passengers carry-on fees, this information is not prominently displayed on the site of either airline. In the case of Spirit, it is contained in section 17.2 of its contract of carriage, for which a link appears at the bottom of the home page, and in the case of Frontier, it is accessible through a link to “Tips and FAQs,” again at the bottom of the home page. Persons such as Murphy-Sanders, with limited knowledge of computers and websites, would not be able to easily find the information.

Since Murphy-Sanders and her husband don’t believe that they can cancel the reservations with either airline without incurring large cancellation fees, they would like to have the fees waived because they “were not well informed on this policy.” Alternatively, “if nothing can be done, then [they]’d like to warn other people.”

Does Orbitz have an obligation to disclose the carry-on bag fees to its customers? And are the fees unreasonable?

Orbitz’s own terms of use indicate that

Additional terms and conditions will apply to your reservation and purchase of travel-related goods and services that you select. Please read these additional terms and conditions carefully. In particular, if you have purchased an airfare, please ensure you read the full terms and conditions of carriage issued by the Supplier, which can be found on the Supplier’s website. You agree to abide by the terms and conditions of purchase imposed by any supplier with whom you elect to deal, including, but not limited to, payment of all amounts when due and compliance with the supplier’s rules and restrictions regarding availability and use of fares, products, or services.

So Orbitz is not going to assume any responsibility regarding the carry-on fees. It’s passing the buck back to its “suppliers” — the airlines in question.

And unfortunately, ancillary fees, such as carry-on fees, have become a lucrative revenue stream for many airlines, especially those that market themselves as “bargain” or “discount airlines,” such as Spirit and Frontier — presumably to compensate the airlines for revenues they forfeit by selling air tickets with low base fares.

On the other hand, the largest U.S. airlines — American Airlines, Delta, and United — all allow passengers to bring one carry-on bag and one personal item aboard flights free of charge, as do JetBlue and Southwest.

Considering that most, if not all, of these airlines are eager to charge whatever ancillary fees they can to their customers, yet don’t charge carry-on fees for at least one bag and one personal item, one might wonder whether it’s reasonable for any airline to charge a carry-on baggage fee.

But both Frontier and Spirit Airlines — and Orbitz — could do a better job of disclosing that the fees will be charged. If Orbitz is communicating to its customers that the airfares sold on its site include “all taxes and fees,” then its customers should not be caught in “gotcha!” situations. Fees for carry-on bags should be separately and prominently disclosed, rather than bundled in a package with ticket base fees and buried in fine print on airline websites or in their contracts of carriage.

Unfortunately, we’ve been making the argument for completely transparent airline ticket pricing, with full disclosure of all fees, taxes, and other charges included in the cost of air tickets, for years, and the U.S. Senate failed to pass the Transparent Airfares Act in 2014. It was reintroduced in the Senate by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in 2016 and referred to a committee, where it remains as of this writing. And unless and until a government body passes legislation or issues other legal prohibitions against “gotcha!” ticket pricing, customers are stuck paying whatever airlines choose to charge for airfares — and ancillary fees.

So we advise all travelers to seek as much information as possible about fees charged by airlines, including ancillary fees – which may include charges for carry-on bags. Even if you’re not computer-savvy, be prepared to check out airline websites and look for their contracts of carriage or other language that indicate that you will be charged ancillary fees.

And if you don’t want to pay what an airline is charging, vote with your wallet — and book your tickets on airlines that don’t charge ancillary fees that you don’t want to pay.

Should we take Barbara Murphy-Sanders' case?

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