First went the free meals, pillows, blankets and peanuts. Then came the extra fees for booking over the phone, flying your pet and checking a second bag.
Now, for the first time, a major U.S. airline says it will begin charging many passengers to check even one bag, a move that’s angered customers amid predictions that it will spread to other carriers and cause havoc during the peak summer-travel season.
Hit hard with record-high fuel costs and an aging, gas-guzzling fleet, American Airlines, the nation’s largest carrier, said Wednesday it will begin charging some domestic economy-class passengers $15 each way for the first checked bag.
Last month, American, which flies about 5 percent of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s passengers, announced it would join other major carriers (except Southwest) in charging $25 for second bags checked by domestic coach passengers who are not premium members of their frequent-flier programs.
“Frankly, I expect the other Big Six carriers [United, Delta, Continental, US Airways, Northwest] to match American’s move with lightning speed,” Joe Brancatelli said in an e-mail message he sent to subscribers of Joesentme.com, a newsletter he publishes for business travelers. “And, frankly, I expect absolute chaos at ticket counters around the nation.”
He’s not alone in that. Fliers unhappy with American’s move are posting on blogs and other sites around the country, making the same predictions.
Customers such as Brian Jones, 29, a Seattle network engineer who flies five or six times a year, expressed frustration.
Jones said he and a friend each had to pay American Airlines $25 for checking a second bag on the way home from Los Angeles recently after a Mexican cruise.
“They wouldn’t give you the ticket unless you paid right there … Now they want to charge you $15 for the first bag. That’s ridiculous. I’ll switch airlines.”
A spokesman for Seattle-based Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air, which carries nearly half the passengers traveling through Sea-Tac, said the airline has no plans to charge for a first checked bag.
Delta also said it had no plans to follow American’s lead, but United said it is considering it. As fuel costs go higher, airlines say they have fewer and fewer choices when it comes to new sources of revenue.
“They’re going to do everything possible to change the way people travel in every possible way,” said Susan Foster, a Portland.-based author of “Smart Packing for Today’s Traveler.”
“Some European carriers charge for every bag. … I think the U.S. airlines are watching that very closely … and they’re following them in small steps. Our days are numbered.”
American said its new policy means customers who purchase economy-class tickets before June 15 may check one bag for free and a second bag for $25 each way. Customers who buy tickets on or after June 15 will be charged $15 each way for the first checked bag and $25 for the second.
The fees won’t apply to those traveling on full-fare coach or business-class tickets, international travelers and passengers who hold premium status in the frequent-flier program.
American said it would not charge to check a car seat or stroller if a parent is traveling with a child, but other baggage charges would apply. Details are posted on the airline’s Web site at www.aa.com.
Unlike the second-bag fee, which affected a small number of travelers, a huge percentage of travelers check one bag, Brancatelli noted.
He predicted that if other carriers go along with American’s policy, many will try to slim down carry-on weight (40 pounds or less). That could translate into longer waits at security checkpoints where carry-ons are inspected.
And that could just be the start of the problems.
“Aircraft have limited storage area, so this will overload the carry-on bin capacity and produce major ‘bin rage’ as competition accelerates for this space,” Foster predicted. “Anticipate delays,” she said, if bags have to be taken off the plane and checked at the gate before takeoff.
Airlines around the world have been hit hard by skyrocketing jet fuel prices, which have climbed 80 percent in the last year.
“Our company and industry simply cannot afford to sit by hoping for industry and market conditions to improve,” Gerard Arpey, chairman and chief executive of American and its parent AMR, told company shareholders at their annual meeting Wednesday in Fort Worth, Texas.
Major U.S. airlines face liquidation should capacity cuts and fare increases fail to cover rising fuel costs, the chief of an industry trade group said.
Oil at $130 a barrel “is simply a number around which we cannot survive,” James May, president of the Air Transport Association, told reporters in Washington. “It will inevitably lead to failures in the business.”