Sometimes You Just Want a Steak: Thoughts on airline checked baggage fees

Airport luggage

They are, in a nutshell, exorbitant, inappropriate, and not at all for the reasons the airlines would have us believe.

Let me back up a step.

Last week, to celebrate Easter as well as to use some of my overtime for a well-deserved break, I took a trip to Ontario.

I find myself travelling more and more every year.  Part of this is because my writing – both my WIP and the future novels I want to write – require some firsthand research.  Another part is because, now that I’m well into my adult stage of life, I both have more and know more about how to manage my money in order to make regular vacations possible.

(Also, I’m a Sagittarius, or at least a demi-Sag, having been born on the Scorpio-Sagittarius cusp.  I’m no adherent of astrology, but I do enjoy adding a characteristic like “lover of travelling” to the mostly negative list of traits the Scorpio sign I best identify with is known for: loyal and flexible on a good day, antisocial, moody, controlling, and demanding every other time.)

We all have baggage

I accept for the most part that air travel is a miserable, rather demeaning, and inexplicably freezing cold experience by nature and likely always will be.  Without complaint, I jump through all the various hoops set up for travellers like the good little trained seal or monkey that I am.

Perhaps because of this, checked baggage fees are threatening to become the very last straw for me.

Because they’re insane.

Seriously – what is up with that?  Luggage is an inherent part of travel; without the former, the latter literally could not happen.

You are leaving your home for a period of time to take up residence somewhere else; that necessitates bringing personal belongings, particularly if you’re going away for several weeks or longer still.

Look ma - no cutlery!

Look ma – no fork!

Charging for luggage is like going out to eat and being charged to use the silverware.  Yes, it’s possible to go to a pizza place or a burger joint to get a bite without the need for cutlery – the eating out equivalent of your carry-on luggage.

But no one would consider that fine dining, just as no one would consider having to live on the contents of a carry-on bag for any length of time good living.  Besides, sometimes, you really would just rather eat a steak.

(I am a vegetarian and don’t actually eat steak, but you get the idea.)

I find the notion of a checked baggage fee an insult to the intelligence.  I would rather they just raise the base price of the tickets by $25 then say they’re making you pay for something you can’t do without.  What’s next – paying for use of the seatbelt?

Not only are airlines greedy entities, they also try to make out like all of this is the fault of their customers.

When these ridiculous baggage fees were first introduced in the U.S. some years ago, the word on the street was it was because people were packing too much stuff – that it was too hard on the baggage handlers and was taking too long for it all to be loaded on the planes.

When I first heard that, I actually felt a twinge of guilt.  Those poor baggage handlers!  Airlines were just trying help their employees and here I was exacerbating someone’s bad back.

Forget the fact that either a) hiring more baggage carriers or b) allowing more time for the planes to be loaded would have solved that problem handily.

I’m not even sure why I swallowed that load other than, as the saying goes, there’s one born every minute.

They’re in the money

I recently read an article (I can’t recall where, but the internet is full of them) about “ancillary” or “unbundled” airline fees.

As it turns out, checked baggage fees weren’t introduced out of consideration for the baggage handlers (shocking!), but rather are a calculated financial scheme to force customers to weigh how few comforts (e.g. luggage, meals, extra legroom, shorter lineups, wi-fi, etc.) they’re willing to settle for and to monetize the hell out of those that they aren’t.

Research has shown that airlines utilizing this model have reaped huge profits at the expense of customers’ comfort, dignity, and pocketbooks.

The new line they give is that unbundling results in savings for the consumer since you only pay for what you want.  Funny – I go to Ontario every Easter, yet even with oil prices at record lows, my fare this year was more than last year’s.  Plus, because I visited a winery while away and bought a bottle and some specialty jams, I had to pay $25 to check my bag.

Overhead compartment cartoonSince checked baggage fees have become a thing, travellers are now blamed for bringing on too much carry-on luggage, hogging all the overhead bin space, injuring flight attendants who help lift heavy bags overhead, and once again delaying flights.

It’s true too, and annoying as hell!  But at the same time, I can’t really blame people. Twenty-five dollars is a lot of money for what you’re actually getting.  That’s half a week’s worth of groceries for me, or just about the amount I pay every two months for my hydroelectric bill.

It’s a blanket fee regardless of the size and weight of the bag.  On top of that, it’s taxable, which explains why the government has been strangely (i.e. not strangely at all) silent on the subject.

Ultimately, it will take airlines losing more money from delayed flights and injured flight attendants than they gain from the fees for any changes to be made.  Maybe passengers being a little more intentional with their aggravating behaviour surrounding carry-on baggage would also help.

Towards financially friendlier skies

If unbundling is the route airlines intend to go permanently (and it’s not written in stone that they must: presently, Qantas – the national airline of Australia – hasn’t even while both Air Canada and Westjet did so last year), they could at least make it more equitable.

They should charge a sliding scale for checked baggage depending on the bag’s weight, and start the price lower, say at $15.  Also, offer a “discount” for pre-paying online – soften the blow a little, even if it’s just the illusion of softness.

And, does the fee really need tax added to it?  The government already collects a hefty payout from travellers on the price of every ticket.  Can’t airlines cover the tax for us for a change?

As previously mentioned, luggage is a necessity not a luxury.

I’m not going to stop travelling over this; not yet.  Not now that I’ve started coming into my own as a travelling Sagittarian.

I do recognize that checked baggage fees are something of a first world problem (for all that airlines all over the world are adopting them), but so too is the reason for their existence.

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

What are your thoughts on air travel?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1, #2 and #3)

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4 thoughts on “Sometimes You Just Want a Steak: Thoughts on airline checked baggage fees

  1. Yes – you go fight for the right things. Me, I just pay – outside of what I can afford to spend energy on.

    I wonder what proportion of people travel without baggage?

    If the airlines would just enforce their own rules EQUITABLY, but they don’t – passengers do not stick to the allowable size/weight – or there would be room enough for all of us.

    Also, there is a nice loophole: if you can get your carryon to the door of the plane, they will put it in the baggage compartment without charging you if there is no room in the overhead bins – because at that point, all they want to do is get that plane off the ground. People know that. They abuse the privilege.

    Gate handling should be reserved for things like my walker – I need it to get TO the plane, and to get OFF the plane, but there is no room inside the passenger compartment.

    And don’t suggest I get the wheelchair access – it is an erratic service that takes gobs of extra time when it goes wrong. I don’t HAVE to have it yet; I’ll wait.

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    • I don’t even know how older people and those with mobility challenges even manage air travel anymore. It’s become such a cattle call, and when did the aisles on planes get so narrow (I know I haven’t gotten any wider)?

      Yes, I didn’t even get into those people (those) people) who knowingly sneak an oversized bag through in order to have it gate checked for free. I’m pretty sure that practice is going to be ending soon; soon, the flight staff will be whipping out a debit machine, and the sooner the better in my opinion to catch those cheaters.

      I heard a story on the news about a man tried to carry on a regulation-sized bag, but all the overhead bins were full, so they gate checked it for him. And proceeded to lose the bag; they had no record of it at all: the flight was already delayed (and oversold), so they didn’t give him a claim stub. The man was on his way to India to get married, and in his bag he had his camera, iPad, the clothes we was going to wear for the wedding, and a number of other expensive items one usually carries on. The airline (I think it was Air Canada) was initially not going compensate him until he took the story to the media.

      And that right there is why I complain about this stuff. Yes, it’s a first world problem, but as I said, so too is the reason air service has become so terrible.

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  2. Ah Janna, you’ll know how it used to be when well-heeled travellers used to load up their worldly possessions in trunks and porters used to load them on and off ships to await them as they arrived in their foreign hotels. Even I can recall going to the seaside for a week with Mum and Dad barely able to lift the suitcases. I don’t think you mention that each increment in weight means extra fuel cost so to charge for baggage makes sense to me.

    It’s not equitable though in that case if a big fat guy (for example) pays the same for his ticket as a slim young woman. That’s where I, as an airline boss, would change things 🙂

    I think you have to allow airlines to make profits though to remain in business and to reinvest. Competition regulations ought to see to any blatantly excessive charging practices.

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    • I agree that extra weight adds to the fuel cost, but I don’t think one free bag is too much to ask. The airlines were always very strict about bag dimensions and very quick to charge for overweight luggage – it happened to me once.

      I think they have quite a bit more leeway than they let on. Recall that suitcases represents only a fraction of what planes carry: there’s also mail, commercial cargo, even corpses. I think that airlines can make profits without going overboard on charging for necessities. $25, in my opinion, is excessive. I’d like to see a reduction to $10 or $15 but what’s more likely to happen (indeed, I’ve read some articles to the effect) is that they will start charging for either the use of the overhead bin or carry-on luggage all together.

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