Bashing the Airlines – Always a Safe Political Bet

  • Share
  • Read Later

Who isn’t mad at the airlines these days? First, they took away our free meals. Sure, those meals were microwaved, bland and often gummy, but still. Then, airlines started charging for checked bags. This will not stand, we declared! Well, it did stand and now nearly all airlines charge for the privilege. But there was an adverse consequence – besides the charge itself. More passengers started carrying their luggage into the cabin – shoving suitcases and duffle bags into overhead compartments and under the seats in front of them.

With family on the West Coast, I fly a lot and can attest that there is something to carry on about regarding carry ons. To ensure you’ll find a place to put your bag once on board, you now have to stalk the gate – standing closer and closer to the ticket taker waiting for your “zone” to be called. Board the plane even slightly late and there’s a good chance the overhead compartments will already be stuffed by the time you arrive on board with your bulging “small” suitcase.

Spirit Airlines is the first carrier to react, recently announcing they will charge passengers for carry on bags. Blasphemy! Cue the politics.

Democratic Senators Ben Cardin and Mary Landrieu have introduced a bill that would make it illegal for airlines to charge for carry on luggage. They’re calling their legislation the Free of Fees for Carry-On Act. This seems like pandering at its most obvious.

As much as we hate many of the changes airlines have made in recent years – many of them due to increased fuel prices – this is business. If passengers don’t want to pay Spirit’s extra carry-on fee, they can seek a seat elsewhere – unless, of course, all airlines follow Spirit’s lead. But even then, is it really unfair to charge the most laden passengers more than the light packers? After all, every pound on an airplane uses up more fuel. But what politician will stand up and say, “No, passengers with more stuff should pay more!”? I’m not holding my breath.

In a statement, Cardin said,

“…carry-on luggage is where people keep items essential to their health, work, and safety like laptop computers, medications, food to eat on the plane, baby formula, eye glasses and other essentials that need to be kept close at hand. Carry-on items are important for the safety and health of the air travelling public. These are personal items that airline passengers should not be charged to keep with them in the cabin.”

But a closer look at Spirit’s policy shows the airline won’t charge for purses, briefcases or other items that can fit under a seat. I’d be hard pressed to believe that the belongings crowding out the overhead bins are all baby formula and medicine. There are some non-essential items up there too.

One section of the Cardin/Landrieu bill would require airlines to disclose to the public and transportation secretary all fees they apply to flights, from on-board meals to checked baggage. This seems reasonable.

As Alex and I pointed out in a 2008 story, airlines aren’t eager to clearly display extra charges, since their ticket prices are often ranked by online search engines in order of base ticket price only.

Then again, maybe legislation is the answer. After all, aside from our representatives and senators, there may be no one else to complain to.