We talk a lot about great leaders. But for this moment, let's talk about some followers.

Followers like say, Alaska Airlines. The fifth largest U.S. airline rolled out a new fee chart late this week showing that it's increasing its checked bag fee to $30 for the first bag, and $40 for the second bag.

This makes it the last of the big U.S. airlines to increase fees like this--only with one big exception that we'll discuss below. 

First, let's look back at the chronology.

  • The Canadian airlines were first on this one: Air Canada and WestJet hiked bag fees sometime in August, and it was reported on Aug. 28.
  • Next, JetBlue told employees it was raising its baggage fees: in a change it said would go into effect on August 31
  • Second, United Airlines made a similar announcement. Its timing? Also Aug. 31, which by the way was the Friday before Labor Day.
  • Delta didn't make any initial pubic announcement apparently, but the airline quietly updated fees on its webpage without fanfare around Sept. 19, according to reports. The third of the Big Four airlines, American Airlines, decided to follow suit the following day.
  • Finally, Alaska made its website change on October 18. (However, it only goes into effect for flights purchased after Dec. 5.)

I doubt anybody is truly surprised about all of this. People don't like the increased bag fees, for sure, but most passengers recognize that eventually, prices usually go up. A hike from $25 to $30 for the first checked bag in economy class isn't exactly the worst thing anyone's ever done in business. 

Plus, when almost all of your big competitors have raised the rate they charge for checked bags, the pressure to join them must be enormous. Shareholders will demand that publicly traded airlines do everything they can to increase the bottom line. 

But it's the transparency bothers people, or perhaps the lack thereof, and the nickel-and-diming. For one thing, it's striking how many of these bag fee increases are never announced, but just appear on websites. Or that get dropped in a news dump on a Friday afternoon.

And, it's the idea that price-conscious passengers are likely going to choose a flight based in part on the fare--but the fees are designed to do either one of two things:

  • Sock you for a few more dollars you weren't expecting, or
  • Wear you down enough that you give in, and purchase a higher fare that doesn't have the same extra fees. Airlines are reportedly hoping to get an estimated 50 percent or more passengers to upgrade once they see the fees.

For a while, it looked like Congress might step in. But, the final version of the utterly massive FAA reauthorization bill that was passed this month was missing proposed regulation of the fees airlines charge for checked bags and ticket changes.

Again with the Fridays: Congress released the bill late on a Friday night (technically at 2.52 a.m. on a Saturday morning), and President Trump signed it on a Friday afternoon as a key senator was giving a speech on the Supreme Court nomination.

All of which brings us to the only big airline left that advertises in big, bold letters exactly how much it charges for checked bags.

The airline: Southwest Airlines. The baggage fee: Zero dollars for the first two checked bags.

In fact, Southwest lobbied hard to stop Congress from regulating bag fees, because it thinks it has such a big advantage over its competitors.

And its CEO Gary Kelly reiterated just before all the bag fee hiking dominos at other airlines that Southwest is "not thinking about [charging] bag fees."

I don't know if that decision makes Southwest a leader. But it certainly isn't acting like a follower. 

Published on: Oct 20, 2018
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