The Absurdity of U.S. Air Travel: Baggage Fees

(Photo: ellenm1)

On the way home from visiting my brother-in-law’s family in Ohio, we changed planes in Chicago. To avoid the baggage fees, we, like most of our fellow passengers, schlepped our luggage through the airport to the gate in Dayton.  Of course, we had to gate-check it because the overhead bins were long-full by the time we could board (boarding group: infinity). The plane arrived in Chicago late, we waited 20 minutes for our baggage to be unloaded, and then we sprinted to (and barely caught) our connecting flight to Boston.  Naturally, we had to gate-check the luggage for that flight as well.

Baggage fees brought U.S. airlines in 2011 a total of $3.4 billion. That amount is almost one-half of the industry’s 2011 profits of $7 billion. To double the airlines’ profits, the social benefit of which is highly unclear, society incurs many costs:

  1. We spend time and effort schlepping luggage through the airport and the checkpoint security theater — a kind of demodernization where human (customer) labor replaces technology (conveyor belts and baggage trucks).

  2. TSA employees spend time scanning the luggage for water, baby formula, breast milk, and other dangerous substances.

  3. We take longer to board as we jostle for the few spots in packed overhead bins — or, finding no spot, we wriggle backward down the aisle to hand over the bag for gate checking.

  4. Airline employees spend time gate checking individual bags.

  5. Planes lose their scheduled takeoff slot because of the longer boarding time, thus increasing flight delays (unless turnaround times increase, which is also costly).

  6. Upon landing, in the rush to open the overhead bins, we risk heavy bags falling on our heads.

Should airlines be allowed to pass on these costs to society? Baggage charges are part of a larger change: Air travel, even economy class, was once a joy; now it’s an exercise in stoicism. Bring back the Civil Aeronautics Board!

Roger Dooley

I'd add another: On planes that have smaller overhead bins, deplaning is delayed by a huge scrum of passengers in the jetway waiting for carryon items to be placed, one or two at a time, just outside the aircraft door. Insanity. A totally self-inflicted wound.


After reading this I was unsurprised to discover that author Sanjoy Mahajan has a background in math and physics rather than economics. The reality is this: airlines must make a profit in an industry where profits have typically proved elusive and ephemeral. Over the last decade or so, the cost of gas -- which accounts for up to 70 percent of an airline's costs for some carriers according to UNC's John Kasarda -- has increased. Thus, airlines must raise their prices to obtain more revenue to cover such costs. There are basically two ways of doing this: higher fares or higher fees. They have largely opted for the latter, most notably in the form of baggage fees (others include fees for in-flight entertainment like DirecTV and charging for meals). Personally, I find this preferable to the alternative, as I can take measures to avoid the various fees while there is no way around higher fares.

Deregulation has been an absolute boon to consumers through hugely reduced costs, turning what was once a luxury good into something affordable to the vast majority of the population (see charts here: Why anyone would want to undo this and bring back the horrid CAB is beyond me. If anything, what is needed is further deregulation by allowing foreign airlines to ply domestic routes and privatization of airports and the FAA (not a free market fantasy -- Canada basically already does this via the award-winning NAVCANADA).


John Deatherage

Competition is the answer. As soon as the first airline reverses their policy, there will be a stampede of carriers willing to follow.


You mean like Southwest that doesn't and hasn't ever charged baggage fees?

Rachael Burke

In the UK for low-cost carriers there are baggage fees, but also strict limits on handbaggage size (sometimes weight too, usually just size so long as you can lift it into bins unaided). Sometimes the size limits are enforced more than others but everyone's bag fits into the overhead lockers. If you show up with something too big, or you have something slightly too big and are unlucky to board late after the bins are already full you get charged a fine (more than the original bag fee) to put it in the hold. No simple free "gate checking" allowed. The only exception is folding buggies.
Also - sorry - but deplane should not be a word.

Mike B

At that point airlines just need to charge higher fare instead of offering low fares that nobody will actually pay. I love how they claim all this unbundling will help passengers only pay for what they use, but the number of people who don't carry any bags or use the bathroom or need a boarding pass can probably be counted on one hand.


Fly Southwest.


The solution to this problem won't be bringing back the CAB. Much like the horse dung problem in NYC described in SuperFreakonomics (has anyone hear read that book? :-P), technology will solve this problem: Self-driving cars.

1) No baggage fees.
2) I could leave at night and sleep through the travel arriving when I wake up.
3) For shorter flights it may be just as fast to go by car when figure in arriving early, boarding, de-boarding, etc. With a self-driving car there are less interruptions as well.




Air travel was a joy when it was much more expensive due to government controls. So for those of you who can afford it, by all means lets go back to the good old days of the Civil Aeronautics Board. The rest of us will travel by car and more of us will use up more time to travel and die in car crashes.

Tim Buckley

Southwest Airlines STILL does not charge for the first two checked bags per person. Have you considered flying Southwest?

Chris Patterson

I am a frequent flyer on Southwest, which famously does not charge fees for the first two bags, but most travelers still seem to use carry-on bags and incur the same issues described in this article. It would appear that carry-on luggage is preferred because it lessens the time spent waiting for bags as well as the risk of bags not making it to the proper destination. My observations would suggest that money is not the primary motivator.


We all hate the airlines. But the bottom line is they charge what they can because we are paying the fees!

The better way to look at this, in my opinion, is for another airline to come to market and do something like ONLY charge bag fees and nothing else. Completely flip the model on its ear. I guarantee if you only paid something like a bag fee and nothing else, you wouldn't complain.

Just asking for the money to "be returned to society" is pretty ridiculous. What the heck does that even mean?


The economically correct answer is to charge for carry-on luggage according to the inconvenience it causes. Some people will learn to travel without any baggage, and others will pay for the privilege of keeping their bag. Going back to government dictates would only distort the market further, preventing efficiency.

Jeff Dalton

Airlines are in business and therefore have to make a profit. We (travelers) have demanded lower prices, which has made life harder for the Airlines. So I do not blame them, I blame us.

We wanted lower fares and made this demand clear by purchasing discount tickets on discount airlines.

So IMO the Airline is just the messanger and we are the root cause. Don't kill the messanger.

Nathan Richardson

Neither checking nor carrying-on is optimal. Anyone consider just shipping their luggage ahead via UPS? Depending on how much you value your time (and how much stuff you need to bring), maybe that's a better deal?

Mike B

The problem is that the whole unbundling of fees is just a massive bait and switch scheme by airlines to make fares appear low, but then ramp up once you have purchased your (non-refundable) ticket. Making what should be forthright and standard transactions a morass of scams is probably the result of a prisoner's dilemma. Honestly I cant see why anybody flies any carrier besides Southwest.