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Traveler cries foul over bag-fee dodgers

Airline passengers see red when others try to take oversize baggage onboard, then pay no fee when it's checked in. Airline contends that doesn't happen. Is it fair? No.

March 27, 2011|By Catharine Hamm | Los Angeles Times Travel editor
(Mark Shaver / For The Times )

Question: On a recent American Airlines flight, we were appalled that some people tried to board with oversize baggage, which the airline then sent through like the rest of the checked baggage. They paid nothing for this, whereas we paid $50 for two pieces of luggage each way. The airline should make these people step aside while everyone else boards and make them pay accordingly. Do we complain to the Federal Aviation Administration or another government agency to correct this?

Sam Davis

Woodland Hills

Answer: The FAA and the Transportation Security Administration have a common goal, which is to ensure passenger safety. The TSA is looking for substances and weapons that could kill you, and the FAA doesn't want anything inside the plane to kill you accidentally. As long as those safety goals are met, it's up to the airline to enforce luggage policies.

Are passengers trying to game the system? Some are, said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, which is involved in a host of issues affecting travelers. "The airlines also force many passengers with perfectly sized luggage to check their bags at the door of the plane because the overhead fills up," Leocha said in an e-mail to me.

"Is it fair for passengers not to pay luggage fees when their bag is too large to fit in the overhead? Maybe not. But then again is it fair for passengers to have to check luggage when they have followed the rules and have properly sized carry-ons? Probably not," Leocha said.

Luggage fees, by the way, contributed $2.6 billion to the airlines' bottom lines for the first nine months of 2010. Compare that with 2007, when the total for the year was $464 million. You could argue for hours about whether airlines should charge fees for checked bags, but what is indisputable is this: Heavy bags cause a jet to use more fuel. Should someone who carries nothing subsidize the person who brings his Tumi 32-inch Alpha Wheeled Expandable Big Suitcase stuffed to the gills?

Whatever that answer, there is no clear response to the question of whether people are trying to cheat the airline.

American says it doesn't happen. It didn't reply to me, but it did respond to Davis in a note that contained this line: "When a gate agent observes a customer attempting to carry items aboard our aircraft that exceed our carry-on allowance, they will ask the customer to check the excess item, and the proper checked baggage charge is applied."

Tim Morton, design director at Product Development Technologies and a frequent traveler, thinks people do try to take stuff onboard that is too large, but it's not always "devious." Sometimes they just don't understand the regulations, which he attributes to the airlines' failure to communicate luggage policies in a coherent manner.

If we can't rely on travelers to police themselves, then it's up to the airlines to make us prove that our bags fit in those metal templates at the gate. And that means everyone, including elite fliers. "Some airlines unofficially 'look the other way' for elite fliers and those in first class," Leocha said. "I've seen that time after time. Is it fair? No, but it's reality."

The other reality is this: If you cheat to avoid paying a $50 (or more) bag fee, haven't you sold your integrity for less than a C note? Is it worth it?

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