Total fee absurdity: when your luggage costs more than your airfare

by Christopher Elliott on January 31, 2014

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Tom Ungar and his wife spent $128 to fly from Venice, Italy, to Naples, which is a ridiculously low fare. But when their checked luggage tipped the scales at just over 20 kilos, their airline demanded an additional $152.

A luggage fee that exceeds your airfare? Welcome to the wacky world of a la carte fees — a world filled with consumer “benefits” that airline apologists believe you’ll love.

Ungar’s case is something of an extreme example. He was flying on easyJet, an airline known for its preposterous luggage policies. But ignore his cautionary tale at your own peril, because this is the world the Big Three legacy airlines aspire to, if we, their captive customers, would just let them.

Ungar’s misadventure began when he checked in for his flight in Venice recently. After placing their baggage on the scales, an easyJet employee informed the couple that their luggage was “a bit” overweight and pointed them to another representative. That person said their luggage was free to fly for an additional fee of $152.

“The baggage penalty cost more than the airfare for the two of us,” says Ungar. “Astounding.”

The Ungars felt they had no choice but to pay. They returned to the check-in line, where the first employee made a suggestion: Why not repack your bags and carry the excess items on the plane with you?

“She was surprised the first woman at the check-in area did not make the suggestion herself,” he says. “We then walked right back up to the second check-in counter where there was still no line, and the representative said she had already sent our luggage for loading. I asked her why she had already sent it on, and to please get it back so we could lighten our luggage.”

Of course, easyJet refused.

Ancillary fee heroes — or villains?

EasyJet is often held up as one of the ancillary fee heroes of the airline industry. It earns nearly 20 percent of its revenues from forcing passengers to pay for luggage, seat assignments and boarding passes, among other things. In 2012, that came to a cool $1.1 billion, which is not bad for a little European airline. It ranked eighth among worldwide air carriers, according to IdeaWorks, which advises airlines on how to make more money from extras.

“The airline simply has too large an ancillary revenue presence to be excluded from the top 10 lists,” IdeaWorks admiringly concluded.

Yet to passengers like Ungar, there’s nothing heroic about demanding more money for your luggage. When he disputed the “ancillary” fee at the gate, he was told he had no choice.

“Unless we paid the penalty, our baggage would not be returned, and we would be denied access to board our flight,” he says. “My options were to either pay the ransom and ruin one day, or not pay and have the entire vacation ruined. I really had no choice; I had to pay.”

EasyJet kept saying “No.” An appeal to its managers got them absolutely nowhere, despite a written promise that they would look into Ungar’s problem. The airline seemed determined to keep their $152.

Fee advocates insist that they are just giving passengers what they want: The “freedom” to choose to fly without luggage and save money, and the “freedom” to not subsidize another passenger’s checked bags.

Both of those “benefits” are as self-serving as they sound. When is the last time you flew without any luggage? And besides, onerous new policies by the likes of Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit now charge you for carry-on items, so there goes that argument. They’re going to get you, one way or another.

The subsidization argument is also easily debunked. If airline luggage fees truly reflected an airline’s costs, then you would expect one of two things: The fee would be the same, no matter how many bags you checked; or the fee would go down as you checked more bags, because the airline was offering you a discount for the volume, which most businesses do.

But that’s not what happens. Check out American Airlines’ baggage policies, for example.

$25 for the first checked bag.
$35 for the second checked bag.
$150 for any additional pieces

Whoa! One hundred fifty bucks! Can you say “money grab”?

What’s next?

The fee defenders haven’t won this argument. Not so long as customers like Ungar still walk this Earth. It’s easy to see that the likes of easyJet aren’t simply recovering their cost of transporting their customers’ luggage; they aren’t giving us the ability to not subsidize someone else’s luggage and they aren’t offering us “choices.”

Airlines are making money — lots of money — through a combination of onerous policies, lack of clear disclosure, bullying tactics and good old-fashioned greed.

Don’t be surprised if, on your next flight, you are asked to pay more for the privilege of transporting your luggage than your airfare. The airline industry has embraced these bizarre pricing practices because of laissez-faire regulation and because we listened to the misguided airline amen choir, who saw deceptive a la carte fees as the only way for the industry to earn a profit. I guess running a good business doesn’t work for them anymore.

It’s not hard to see that the era of easyJet can’t last. Customers won’t stand for it. In the meantime, here are a few executive contacts for easyJet, where you can let your displeasure over its dishonest policies be known.

And one more thing: Pay attention to the advice you take from other, so-called travel “experts” on this topic. To claim these consumer-hostile policies make sense, you’d have to either be on the airline’s payroll or an idiot. And in one or two cases, maybe, both.

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