An answer to airline hell: Pay your weight when you pay your way

Airline baggage fees spark passenger ire, carry-on chaos, and a congressional bid to end them. Here's a better solution.

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Whaddaya mean, these won't fit in the overhead?

Airline baggage fees spark passenger ire, carry-on chaos, and a congressional bid to end them. Here's a better solution.

So here we are in another season of holiday flying misery, which bodes to be even worse than usual now that nearly every U.S. airline charges for checked bags and, to avoid paying, nearly every passenger packs the biggest carry-on bag that might fit in an overhead bin. And so we jostle, snarl, and clip each other trying to cram these bags in. Security checkers get swamped with the additional carry-ons, making it more likely they’ll miss something important. Frazzled airline workers must lurk at the ramps, impounding the last wave of bags for gate checks after the bins fill up. Boardings are delayed, nerves are frayed, passengers resent the airlines even more than before.

Even before the checked-baggage fees set in, according to Boeing studies cited by The Wall Street Journal, the growth in the volume of carry-on luggage had caused the average number of passengers boarding per minute to plummet from 20 in 1970 to just nine in the early 2000s. I always knew wheels on suitcases were the devil’s rollers.

But what did the carriers expect? Of course people would screw up the system to save $25. Welcome to human nature.

So now Congress, fresh off its triumphant supercommittee tour, wants to help. This week Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu introduced a bill that would make airlines either allow passengers one free checked bag and one free carry-on, or pay extra security fees. The blogosphere promptly lit up with posts denouncing this socialistic nanny-statism (Landrieu’s a Democrat), and the Air Transport Association, the airlines’ lobby group, registered its opposition: “We think it’s inappropriate for government to tell private industry how much it should charge,” ATA rep Jean Medina told me. “We’re working on other ways to streamline the boarding process.” Like what? She said the airlines want the federal TSA to let flight attendants use a special security bypass, just as pilots do. That might be a good idea, but it will scarcely put a dent in the shoeless, beltless throngs stuck in the regular security lines.

But the ATA does have a point. Almost everyone thinks airline deregulation was a success; it’s made flying lots cheaper, albeit less fun. Reinstating free baggage would have unintended consequences. It would encourage passengers to carry even more stuff; since weight is the prime variable in flight costs, forcing those who travel light to subsidize those who like to pack the entire contents of their bathrooms and closets.

Never underestimate the airlines’ ability to tick off customers, gum up service, and drive up costs with opaque, over-complicated, unnecessarily restrictive procedures — just look how long they persisted in boarding passengers front to back, though it’s the most inefficient way. (Most carriers, according to Trip Adviser’s SeatGuru guide, now use the second most inefficient boarding scheme, back to front, though others seem to be faster: outside in, as on United; inverted pyramid, a combination of back-to-front and outside-in; and, fasted of all, random order, as championed by Southwest. (It's Southwest that has also encouraged reasonable boarding by refusing to impose fees for the first two checked bags). In practice, however, many flights still seem to board front to back, in order to favor elite-status passengers who prefer the front.

Still, as the Journal article shows, boarding order is actually a rather complicated problem, testing some big brains and big concepts in engineering and mathematics. Baggage fees are simple by comparison. And so it’s hard to believe that even the airlines would undertake something as perverse as the current pay-to-check system, which wastes precious time (i.e., fuel) and labor, sours customers, and gives them a strong inducement to act against the carriers’ interest. I suspect it’s just a first step, and airlines will next charge for carry-ons as well. That way they could restore a sensible balance between checked and carry-on volumes, ease the scrum in the aisles and bins, and squeeze even more revenue out of luggage.

But that would really invite congressional meddling. So here’s a alternative suggestion, free for the taking (though I’ll gladly accept lifetime gold passes from any airline that wants to try it): Allow free checked and carry-on bags — up to strict weight limits. For checked bags, that limit would match today's overstuffed carry-ons, say 25 pounds. For carry-on, it would be the typical weight of yesteryear’s lighter carry-on — maybe 12 pounds. Above those thresholds, charge by the pound.

That measure might fend off congressional meddling, or work even if Congress mandates free first bags. It would also introduce a type of user fee and help rationalize the whacky way air travel is priced: The more you weigh, the more you would pay. By encouraging people to travel lighter, this would reduce fuel consumption, climate impacts, hernias, and chiropractic bills.

If airlines really want to tick off passengers (or at least the heavier ones), they could extend that principle and charge for body as well as luggage weight. Sounds crazy? Crazy is a skinny gamin with an iPod or a tot with a Teddy bear paying as much as a 300-pounder with a back-busting bag. Just step on the scale with your luggage, sir, while we adjust the price of your ticket.

The author stipulates that, as a middleweight, he would expect to neither save nor lose under such a scheme.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.