On the Spot: Untangling baggage fees

Question: I traveled out of San Francisco this summer. My flight was supposed to take me to Chicago, where I would connect to my flight to Munich, but it was delayed, so a United agent booked me on a nonstop Lufthansa flight instead. My two children and I had two bags each. I have United elite status so there was no bag fee, but when we checked into Lufthansa, we were told we would have to pay for the second bag. Suddenly, I had $210 in bag fees. I can't seem to get United to refund this. Can you help?

M. Milanova



Answer: As it turned out, we didn't have to help. United did the right thing and reimbursed the fees.

But the bad news for travelers — and judging by the mail, this is becoming a bigger issue — is that the airline you think you're flying may not be the airline you really are flying on, and you suddenly must pay for what you thought was free. This may happen because you wind up on a code-share flight or are rebooked on another flight.

To explain: In the olden days (about 10 years ago), you booked your ticket, checked your bag and flew to your destination. Simple, yes? Yes. But nowadays, you may book on what you think is an American flight and end up flying Alaska. That's a code share, or marketing arrangement, that allows American to display routes that it doesn't actually fly; its good friend Alaska does. Generally, the airline you're flying on is the one that sets the rules, not the one you think you're flying on. So what you think is free may not be. The same may be true if your flight is canceled and you end up on another airline.

You can thank the unbundling of airline fees, especially for bags, for this muddle. You almost need a score card to figure out what you'll pay, because the total can differ according to the airline, the destination, your loyalty status, the number of bags, their weight and on and on.

If you'd like things to be clearer, you're not flying solo. Consumer organizations, including Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, the Interactive Travel Services Assn. and the Consumer Travel Alliance, are knocking on the Department of Transportation's door, if not its heads, to help consumers find relief by getting airlines to modify the way they do business.

"It's easier to get a mortgage than to figure out how much a bag is going to cost," said Charlie Leocha, director of Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C. (He notes that many airlines consider baggage fees nonrefundable, so if you've already paid your fees and end up on another flight and have to pay fees again, you'll have to fight like a wildcat to get those first fees back, something he calls "even more pernicious" than other scenarios outlined here.)

But things are getting better for the consumer, in terms of knowing what your fate and your fees will be. In August, the DOT rolled out rules that should keep you from sitting forever on the tarmac, which is especially important for fliers in the upcoming winter months. The DOT also insists that airlines refund your baggage fees if your luggage is lost (seems common courtesy, doesn't it?) and increase the compensation if you're bumped from an overbooked flight. In January, you may see new rules that prevent airlines from increasing prices after you've already paid for something (a prepaid bag fee, for instance) and making all fees and taxes show up in advertised fares.

It seems unlikely that the rule requiring full disclosure of baggage fees will occur in January; the airlines say the process is so complex that the technology hasn't caught up with what it needs to do, so it may take awhile before the baggage issue/fees is resolved. (Um, excuse me, but whose fault is that? Not the consumer's, I would note.) Still, there is hope for improvement, and when is the last time you could say that about a flying experience?

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