At the Anchorage airport, you’ll find lots of passengers unhappy about the news that the airline industry netted 3.4 billion dollars in baggage fees last year, a 24% increase from 2009.
Airline analysts say it works this way: the fees are not so much intended to reduce baggage but to raise revenues.
In fact, the industry has an expanding buffet of fees.
If you were charged for changing a reservation or making one by telephone, you contributed to the $2.3 billion the airline industry collected last year for those services.
“The vernacular in the trade is ancillary revenue. Ancillary is Latin for shakedown,” says Scott McMurren, an Alaska travel writer who publishes Alaska TravelGram, a newsletter and website.
“When you’re determining which airline to fly, where you’re going to travel, you need to keep in mind those additional charges, for which you will be hit, between the time that you buy your ticket and get on board,” says McMurren. “And it varies. It’s a moving target.”
Even seasoned travelers like McMurren have been caught by surprise. Before a flight back from Barcelona last week, he was slapped with overweight baggage charges.
“I thought it was rather extreme to get hit with a $417 dollar bag fee for being eight kilos over,” said McMurren. Eight kilos is about 17 pounds, so McMurren paid almost 25 dollars a pound to bring home a case of Spanish wine.
McMurren says some European airlines are more aggressive about charging fees -- and Ryanair, a discount Dublin-based airline, is one of the worst offenders.
“They charge for preferred boarding,” says McMurren. “They charge if you pay with a credit card. They charge you with a 50 Euro (about $75) penalty if you do not print your boarding pass in advance.”
McMurren says Americans should take notice, because the industry in this country is constantly testing the waters to see how much passengers will swallow.
“For me,” said McMurren, “one of the extreme reaches is really the bleeding edge of ancillary revenue -- US Airways, when they elected to charge for a bottle of water.”
McMurren says the airline eventually backed down from the charge. But he says that won’t stop the company from experimenting with other fees, because the the industry no longer sees selling airline tickets as its only source of revenue.
"This stuff is not going away. It's here to stay," said McMurren.
For Brian Peterson of Eagle River, it all comes down to one thing.
“I’m home. That’s all that matters. Realistically, I don’t care.”
Peterson, who is returning from a tour of duty in Kuwait, was pushing a cart stacked with luggage through the baggage claim area on Tuesday. His 3-year-old son sat on top. His wife walked along beside him.
Peterson flew home on Delta Airlines, which allows military travelers four bags each, up to 70 pounds, at no cost.
“My big locker was 87 pounds, so I paid $135 dollars for overweight fees.”
“There’s nothing wrong with making a profit,” said Daniel. “But for the airlines to even think about charging them for baggage, I think is just being a little bit greedy.”
Airline analysts are quick to point out that fees give travelers more options. If air fares are raised, a customer has no choice but to pay more for a ticket. But with fees, the passenger can always opt out of services, such as carrying extra luggage or buying snacks, to keep the price down.
And airlines are facing some big challenges. Jet fuel costs have risen about 37 percent compared to last year.
Airlines initially responded by raising fares, but discovered that people bought fewer tickets, even after a $50 increase -- so that’s why fees have become the tool of choice for the industry to bolster its bottom line.
Alaska Airlines offers some relief for passengers flying within the state, who are allowed to carry up to three bags at no cost. Another incentive is the company’s mileage awards -- 15,000 miles to fly anywhere in Alaska.
Another form of relief: competition.
“JetBlue landed like a nuclear bomb in the Anchorage International Airport,” says Scott McMurren. “They absolutely transformed the market between here and Los Angeles. Earlier this week, we had airfares as low as 99 dollars, Anchorage to Los Angeles. Alaska Airlines would never do that, unless pressed by a competitive force.”
JetBlue also charges no fees for the first piece of luggage. But McMurren says the company also uses fees as a tool to extract revenue.
“On JetBlue, you pay more for EML. Even More Leg room, like 36 inches. And that’s a benefit,” says McMurren.
A benefit or a burden. It’s not always easy for today’s passenger to know the difference.