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American's baggage fee folly

The Times reports in "American Airlines to charge for checked baggage" that American will soon begin charging passengers a $15 fee to check their first bag.

Yes, their first bag. This is in addition to the $25 it already decided to charge us for checking a second bag. So, if you're checking two bags (which used to be included in the price of your ticket), that'll be $40, please.

American Airlines is giving its customers the now-patented excuse that rising fuel costs have forced the company to implement "new pricing structures." But it sure doesn't feel like there's anything new about these nickel-and-dime policies. It feels like the airline executives are more than happy to pull these contingency plans out of storage and squeeze an extra $40 out of their customers.

If these extra fees were really because of rising fuel prices, then why doesn't American just raise the ticket price? A simple, across-the-board increase affects all customers equally. Instead, the airline has chosen to punish customers who are bringing "extra" weight into the plane, implying that it is now a burden for the plane to carry what used to an afterthought, and that the extra 15 bucks it is putting in the tank means we no longer need to fear falling 100 miles short of Disney World.

In the past (read: a few weeks ago) the price of your luggage was included in the cost of your flight. Each passenger could bring two carry-on pieces each under 50 pounds. (If the luggage was heavier, passengers were charged extra, but this charge was never attributed to rising fuel costs.) If the typical American weighs between 155 pounds and 200 pounds, any entry-level accountant could work up a rough estimate of what the ticket holder's total weight (person plus baggage) would be. The cost of the fuel needed to fly that total weight to its destination used to be included in the price of the ticket (along with how many peanuts each passenger would eat, how many cans of Sprite she would drink, how much oxygen he would need, and so on).

The new fee is tantamount to buying a round-trip ticket for Christmas vacation and being charged an extra $15 on the return flight because the airlines believe you will be fat with Christmas turkey. Imagine the uproar when the airlines bring that "pricing structure" out of storage. Like at Ground Round Grill & Bar, where, when I was a kid, you could "pay what you weigh," my 4-foot-11 fiancee would be able to fly for less than a Ben Franklin, but Rush Limbaugh might find first-class quite costly.

What's at stake here is American Airlines' entire existence. The airline is misunderstanding the consumer psyche: We need freebies. We don't just want them -- we cannot exist without them, and we will scream until we get them. Try telling someone in coach that they need to pay a cushion premium to have a padded seat, or that the oxygen mask dangling in front of them will only work once their credit card has been swiped. Then you'll see what screaming really is.

What American Airlines has done is taken a formerly free service and started charging for it. This doesn't tend to go over well with consumers, who now feel like they are paying more for nothing. Case in point: When was the last time you saw a pay toilet that wasn't vandalized within an inch of its life? When was the last time you saw a pay toilet at all? More importantly, did you return to the pay toilet after knowing what the deal was? A cinder-block wall will do the exact same job, and I can keep my quarter.

For another example, look at Chrysler. It too is struggling with $120-a-barrel oil prices, but it has found a better way to entice buyers to the lots. Instead of trying to make back its money by adding some contrived charge on top of the sticker prices (a license plate holder fee, a fourth-wheel tax), Chrysler has decided to offer its buyers a premium. Buy a Chrysler, Dodge or Jeep and you'll only pay $2.99 a gallon for gas for the next three years. Chrysler will make up the difference. It's genius. The company is plucking two consumer heartstrings at once: frugality and fear. We are a cheap and wary people.

My advice to American is this: I know your prices have increased lately, but raising the price a little more would be a better way to go. Don't scam your customers by tacking on an extra charge before they get on the plane. All that does is build consumer resentment against your brand, and against airlines in general. We will buy our own gas, throw our 192-pound steamer trunk in the back of our new Dodge and burn up some carbon credits getting to Grandma's house rather than be reduced to bringing quarters on the plane just to use the toilet.

William Ernst is a writer and actor from Cincinnati currently residing in New York City.

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