Questions raised by AA’s JFK checked-baggage chaos

by Janice Hough on July 31, 2008

Airlines are on a slippery slope with baggage fees. Now that it is becoming more commonplace to charge for checked luggage, what is going to happen when something goes wrong?

This week, Northwest has announced they will join other major carriers in implementing a fee of $15.00 for the first bag, and Delta has increased the charge for the second bag to $50.00.

These fees are probably here to stay in some form despite what happens with fuel prices. Once passengers get used to the idea, they will probably accept this, like BYO food, as a cost of traveling. Plus having the ability to adjust the baggage fees at will could provide a nice “cash cow” for the airlines. For example, I hate to give them the idea, but they could charge higher fees around the holidays when planes are busier and baggage handlers have more work to do. Or charge more for connecting flights.

But the most recent baggage horror show is a “software” glitch at JFK that affected the automatic bar code scanner and resulted in flight delays and thousands of American Airlines passengers leaving without their luggage.

“Handlers are currently sorting baggage manually, and the airline is telling its departing passengers that they can choose whether to go on the flight or not… Once we have the issue resolved, we’ll get the bags that are left behind on their way to the customer’s destination and delivered to them. Until then, we appreciate our customers’ patience as we work through this issue,” an AA spokesman said.

Passengers were left with the unenviable choice of catching their flight without luggage or sitting on the ground waiting for AA baggage handlers to find their luggage and load it on the flight they would eventually fly on. I think I would have taken off with the hopes that my luggage eventually would catch up with me.

Unfortunately, many of the flights that were affected were international departures. That throws a new monkey wrench into the situation. Delivering misdirected baggage to passengers domestically is one situation, processing it through customs and potentially across European borders is another. Though checked-baggage fees don’t apply to international flights, the odds of eventually seeing your suitcase during your vacation drop dramatically.

According to the American Airlines Contract of Carriage: Returning your bags may take longer on international flights due to flight duration, frequency of flights, or customs and immigration procedures at the destination airport.

While American has waived domestic checked-baggage fees for the day at JFK, it does raise an interesting question. If travelers are paying for checking their luggage, are they entitled to compensation if it doesn’t get there when they do? FedEx and UPS already issue refunds for delayed shipments. If the airlines want to get into what amounts to a shipping business, it doesn’t seem like it will be long until some lawyer pursues this and the current liability limits for airlines are removed.

And furthermore, what about the supposed TSA rules that say checked baggage must always travel with the passenger who checked it in. The AA Contract of Carriage notes, “Checked baggage will be accepted for transportation only on flights on which you are traveling.” More than once, after checking my bags and then trying to fly standby on an earlier flight, AA employees have claimed that, “security regulations require that you fly on the same plane as your luggage.”

Why do those “security rules” disappear when it is the airline that is separating passengers from their luggage. I have searched and can’t find these supposed TSA regulations. Perhaps they are secret, like the rules requiring personal government-approved IDs to board aircraft.

According to Wikipedia: In the United States, should passengers flying internationally with checked baggage fail to arrive at the departure gate before the flight is closed, that person’s baggage must be retrieved from the aircraft hold before the flight is permitted to take off, according to the rules of most air transportation authorities, such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and European Union’s Joint Aviation Authorities. This does not apply to domestic flights since all bags are required to go through bomb detection machines prior to being loaded. Making sure passengers board flights onto which they have checked baggage is called “passenger-baggage reconciliation.”

This situation at JFK with American Airlines certainly raises far more questions than only how to get the barcode scanner working again.

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  • Hapgood

    Since reuniting passengers and lost luggage involves no inconsiderable expense for the airline, it’s clearly unfair to burden the airline’s beleaguered shareholders and embattled executives with those costs. The ordinary fees for checking bags (even with the recent improvements to the fee schedule for more than one bag) can’t possibly cover the full cost of providing this special labor-intensive service.

    So I propose that airlines charge a fee (a “Special Customer Service Fee”– I’m sure the marketeers can come up with a better name) for tracking and returning lost bags. The fee needs to at least cover the full costs of providing that service plus any associated overhead, so it should be subject to yield-management pricing determined at the moment it’s needed. The higher volume of lost baggage during holiday periods means more overtime and/or temporary employees, so recovering lost baggage during the Christmas season should carry an appropriate premium.

    Similarly, a massive glitch like the one at JFK involves very high costs to the airlines. Not only do they have to pay employees overtime (or hire temporary workers) to sort the luggage manually, they have the expense of fixing the software glitch itself and possibly dealing with the demands of Customs and Security officials in various countries. So the Special Customer Service Fee for passengers who got caught up in the JFK glitch should be priced to fully reflect the costs of rectifying the problem.

    In our “nation of whiners,” some passengers are surely going to complain about “adding insult to injury” and what they in their ignorance perceive as inherent unfairness. But with the current economic reality, any reasonable person would conclude that forcing innocent shareholders to absorb those expenses would be an injustice of monumental proportions. So it’s only fair that passengers should bear the cost of providing the service.

    And I’m sure airline marketeers could put the correct happy spin on it: The Special Customer Service Fee helps airlines improve their service and saves customers money. Passengers whose luggage arrives on the carousel should not be subsidizing those whose luggage somehow does not arrive. The Special Customer Service Fee also gives passengers more choices; they can choose to buy replacement belongings or they can pay a fee that is probably less than those costs. So the fee actually saves passengers money!

  • Carrie Charney

    In Sept., ’06, I was meeting my daughter and family in Newark for a flight to Paris on Continental. I was originating in Newark and they were connecting to the flight from Baltimore. When we met at the gate for Paris in Newark, the gate agents told us, that since my granddaughter and son-in-law had been no-shows at BWI, they were no longer on the flight to Paris. With marked boarding passes and a lot of hassle, we did finally convince the gate agents at EWR that no one had missed his plane, but not before all our reserved roomy bulkhead seats had been given away. We all were put individually in scattered middle seats, far away from each other, including my 3-yr old granddaughter, who is mildly autistic. Thank goodness, once on the plane, some very understanding flyers did change seats with us. Before all was “righted,” we asked what would have happened to our luggage. We were told that our luggage would have gone on to Paris before, being returned. In this case, we were happy about that.

  • http://tripso.com Mark

    This may be a view of the future.Lost bags as a revenue source.

    Anonymous sources are reporting that US Airwaysis considering two new lost baggage fees.
    If your bag is lost on a flight, there will be a new $50.00 search fee for the airline to endeavor to retrieve it.
    This is to cover the additional cost for personnel to actually look for the bag.

    In addition there will be a $75.00 fee if the bag is actually found. The additional fee is needed to cover the additional cost of transportation for the lost bag to be reunited with its owner.

    I suspect that if this rumor is true ,most of the other US based airlines will follow suit.

  • Jupper

    Charging fees when not getting a bag to its destination at the same time as the owner would probably get ugly *very* fast. Currently those costs are included in your ticket.

    If luggage is lost more often, and the costs of retrieval and delivery go up against what was projected, overall costs go up, just like fuel costs. Those costs should be in the total ticket cost, but airlines think they can get away by adding fee upon fee, I highly doubt US and EU legislation will work in their favor (look at the “penatlies” when suffering flight delays in the EU, those apply to US carriers too!)…

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