British Airways shouldn’t have charged Jim Arnold and his wife $400 for their checked bags. After all, the couple were flying from London to Newark in premium economy class. But when they tried to check in, that’s what the computer demanded.
So they forked over their credit card number.
Later at the airport, a representative apologized for the glitch. “I was told that this happens all the time,” says Arnold, a retired chief financial officer who lives in Bellevue, Wash. “I needed to contact customer service at British Airways for a refund.”
The airline representative was right. This happens all the time. When in doubt, an airline charges for bags, because luggage has become a massive source of revenue. The domestic airlines are on track to break last year’s record of $3.5 billion in luggage fees. By comparison, domestic airlines collected only $464 million in such fees eight years ago.
The industry is resorting to increasingly creative tactics in an apparent belief that there’s still room to grow this revenue source. They include everything from simply raising luggage fees to creating complicated pricing menus that confuse customers and prodding them into participating in loyalty programs with the promise of a “free” bag in exchange for signing up for a branded credit card. Fortunately, there are ways around all of that.
First, a little more bad news: The airline industry is probably right about baggage. You and I are willing to pay more than we already are. It’s still considerably more expensive to ship luggage overnight, for starters. Recent studies show baggage revenues continuing to grow aggressively. In fact, two no-frills airlines, Allegiant and Spirit, even raised some of their fees for the holidays to take advantage of high demand. Baggage fees are so profitable that they are spreading outside the United States — for example, in Asia and South America, according to the studies.
For an idea of how much worse things can get, listen to what happened to Vito Valentinetti when he flew from Copenhagen to Boston on WOW Airlines, an Icelandic budget airline. “I found nearly a month after I booked the ticket that I was only allowed to bring on a single piece of carry-on luggage under 11 pounds,” he says. “I could upgrade for $38 to a single 26-pound carry-on or pay $48 to check the bag.”
Don’t wait too long, the airline warned. If he tried to “upgrade” at the ticket counter, it would cost $48 and $67, respectively.
Another way airlines persuade their passengers to pay more is by making their luggage costs too complicated to understand. The resulting confusion can be expensive, as it was for Johanna Jacobson, a photographer who was flying from Los Angeles to Rome recently on Air France. The luggage fee page on the Air France website was “the most complicated chart I had ever seen,” she says, “and for the life of me I could not figure out the costs.”
But Air France could. Although a representative repeatedly assured Jacobson by phone that her second bag would be “free” and her third bag would cost $100 to check, the actual price came to $100 for the second bag and $285 for the third bag — a grand total of $385 that her credit card company insisted was a legitimate charge, even after she formally disputed it.