I just got back from a visit to the East Coast, and this latest trip confirmed an observation I've made many times over the past few years: Air travel sucks. It sucks worse than it used to. The suck factor seems set to continue increasing.

One of the many ways air travel sucks worse these days is the extra fees the biggest airlines now impose if you want to check luggage to your destination. It's a fee they should now consider rescinding, argues New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who notes, "The idea that travelers should be hit by an extra charge for, um, having luggage began in 2008, when the cost of fuel went through the roof. We understood the airlines' pain, sort of." But now fuel prices are at historic lows, she writes, and airline profits have risen more than ten-fold to $26 billion over the past five years. So, she says, maybe it's time for them to lose the luggage fee, either forever or at least during the summer vacation months.

That proposal has been made by various members of Congress and the Federal Government and the response has been crickets. That was easy to predict--you're not going to get an industry with a captive audience locked in fierce price competition to eliminate a fee that the public has learned to accept.

But someone in the comments section on her piece came up with one of the smartest suggestions I've heard in a long time: Pay for eliminating the checked luggage fee, at least for the first bag, by charging a fee for carry-on luggage. 

I can hear you groaning out there. Another fee?? But bear with me for a moment while I explain why this would be a good idea and how it could work:

1. It would shorten security check-in lines.

Collins argues convincingly that less carry-on luggage would make security check-in go much more quickly because TSA employees have to, in essence, do a baggage check every time someone brings a small rolling suitcase or large shoulder bag through the checkpoint. Well aware of the slowdown caused by all this luggage, the airlines have come up with a solution: Tell the TSA to increase. Facing this pressure, the TSA is making plans to do just that, at a cost of $34 million for this summer alone. Since the TSA is a government agency, we get the pleasure of paying for all this extra help with our tax dollars while also paying the luggage fees that encouraged people to carry on more in the first place.

With free checked bags a charge for carry-ons, travelers would check more and carry less which would make for quicker service and less congestion at checkpoints. Not to mention more elbow room in waiting areas, rest rooms, airport shops, and restaurants.

2. It would lead to quicker boarding and fewer flight delays.

Think back to the last time you got on a plane. You walked part way down the jetway, stopped, and waited. You walked onto the plane, stopped, and waited. Most of these stops took place while someone hefted a large item into the overhead bin. Until you got to your seat yourself, and the people behind you waited while you stored your own overhead item. It's easy enough to see how fewer overhead items would mean less stopping, faster boarding, and quicker takeoffs.

That's the carry-on luggage I think we need to reduce: That which has to go into the overhead compartment. Storage under the seat in front of you would still be free, allowing for things like purses, briefcases and laptop bags.

3. Cutting checked-baggage fees alone wouldn't be enough.

OK, all of this is a good argument for cutting checked-baggage fees. But why add a new carry-on fee? Unfortunately, it's the only thing that will actually discourage people from bringing as many of their possessions as possible with them onto airplanes. 

I usually fly Southwest, an airline that has proudly rejected checked-baggage fees for the first two bags. Nevertheless, Southwest flights are still crowded with roll-on bags. The compulsion to carry on lots of stuff dates back well before the luggage fees. In part this is because airlines have a reputation for losing or damaging luggage. An even bigger reason, I believe, is that although wait time for luggage to come out of the chute at baggage claim is usually only a few minutes, when you're waiting to go collapse in a hotel room or on your way to an important meeting it can seem like forever. 

Years ago, before any airline started charging for checked bag, I overheard one frequent business traveler proudly tell another that he could take any trip of six days or less using only carry-on luggage. The fact that so many people take that approach is really slowing things down at security check-in and boarding. It's time we found ways to speed them up again.

Published on: May 28, 2016
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