Once upon a time, I was in the air constantly for work. Things have changed, and since I fly less frequently now, I have the great (ahem) opportunity to experience airlines the way the masses without status do. 

Example: Last month when I traveled with my wife and daughter on United Airlines, I forgot until we arrived at the airport that I'd have to pay an extra fee for each of our checked bags. Welcome to 2018.

It's a bit annoying, but it's theoretically more economically efficient, in that passengers who care most about low prices can bundle add-ons (or not) that used to be part of the basic economy ticket. (Problem: it's often difficult to calculate fees for all the add-ons like checked bags that a passenger wants, which in turn makes it hard to comparison shop.)

Now, I'm seeing it all from the other side, however, where the numbers don't lie.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics, part of the federal department of transportation, has revealed exactly how much each of the large airlines makes from baggage fees. And you can see why the airlines might mostly kinda like the current system.

The stats are staggering: a total of $4.56 billion in 2017, which in turn represents a 9.6 percent increase over the previous year across the industry. Here's how much the top airlines made by charging you to bring your stuff with you when you fly.

1. American Airlines

American tops the list, bringing in $1.17 billion which accounts for basically one-quarter of all baggage fees across the top 13 airlines. To put it into context, that's enough to buy a lot of professional sports teams: say, the Dallas Mavericks for example, since they already play at the American Airlines Center.

2. Delta Airlines

The second-largest U.S. carrier also came in second on the baggage chart, with total revenue of just over $907 million according to the BTS. Interestingly however: Delta is widely seen as being the most efficient airline at targeting business travelers, for whom checked bags are included in their higher fares. 

3. United Airlines

United comes in third, with just under $794 million in baggage fees. It had the largest year over year increase however, up more than 31 percent from 2016. 

4. Spirit Airlines

No big surprise here, in that almost everything costs extra on Spirit, including not only checked baggage but carry-on bags, too. The little airline that could--could charge extra, that is--took in $434 million.

5. Frontier, JetBlue, Alaska, etc.

Frontier had just over $364 million, and JetBlue brought in just over $289 million. We'll rattle off places 7 through 10 quickly, because I want to get to the airline in 11th place: Allegiant ($192 million), Alaska ($147 million), Hawaiian ($82 million), and Virgin America ($62 million). 

6. Southwest Airlines

Here we are: the number three airline in passenger volume, which is nevertheless #11 in baggage fees, with a total of just under $46 million. The reason of course is that passengers can generally check two bags for free on Southwest. 

Compare Southwest to United, which has slightly lower total passenger volume. There's almost a $750 million difference there. How tempting must it be for Southwest to ease back on its free bag policies and lean into some of that revenue? I suspect they believe the added goodwill they get from passengers more than makes up for it.

For the rest of us passengers, what can you do to avoid baggage fees? Be loyal and get status, or as The Points Guy advocates, get credit cards with free checked bags as a perk.

Or, just don't take as much stuff. And remember, roll, don't fold.

Published on: May 8, 2018
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