With the busy holiday travel season in full swing, federal lawmakers, passenger rights advocates and airlines are squaring off over one of the thorniest issues in flying today: baggage fees.
The bottom line is that you will probably get no reprieve from the fees any time soon.
A Louisiana senator proposed legislation last week that would allow airline passengers to check one bag for free on each flight.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said the bill is meant to protect passengers from excessive fees. The legislation would also guarantee that passengers can bring carry-on bags at no extra charge and get access to water and bathrooms on flights.
“Passengers have been nickeled-and-dimed for far too long, and something has to be done about it,” she said in a statement.
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano recently suggested that airlines let passengers check one bag for free to reduce the number of carry-on bags packed into overhead bins. She said carry-on bags slow the screening process and increase the screening cost nationwide by $260 million a year.
More than 72% of air travelers said that the growing volume of carry-on bags is one of their top frustrations, in a recent survey by the U.S. Travel Assn.
But the industry group that represents the nation’s airlines opposes Landrieu’s bill.
“Obviously we don’t think it’s appropriate for the government to regulate what services a private industry should offer to customers and at what price … especially since aviation was de-regulated in 1978,” said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn.
Landrieu’s bill has been sent to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee for a hearing.
Meanwhile, a passenger rights group has sought at least a temporary break from baggage fees.
The Washington-based Assn. for Airline Passenger Rights issued a challenge last week, urging the nation’s airlines to temporarily waive baggage fees from Nov. 23 until Dec. 31.
Brandon M. Macsata, executive director of the group, said he hoped the airlines would waive the fees as a goodwill gesture toward passengers. After all, he said, a holiday break from baggage fees would not bankrupt the airlines.
But no airline responded to the challenge. “We haven’t even been acknowledged by the airlines,” Macsata said. “I expect that they probably see too many dollar signs during the holidays.”
Southwest is sued over drink coupons
Southwest Airlines has no fee to check passengers’ first two bags but charges $5 for an alcoholic drink. The exception is when the airline hands out drink coupons.
An Illinois man who said the airline rewarded him with at least 45 drink coupons for buying premium-priced Business Select tickets is suing the airline, saying Southwest now refuses to honor the coupons.
Such drink coupons were previously printed without expiration dates, but Southwest changed its policy Aug. 1, 2010, saying the coupons given to Business Select passengers may be used only on the day of travel printed on them.
The plaintiff, Adam Levitt, said the policy change amounts to a breach of contract and makes his coupons worthless. He is asking for compensatory and punitive damages, to be determined at trial.
“Southwest decided that it would make more money — improve its bottom line — by choosing not to honor the coupons that consumers had already paid and bargained for,” said the complaint filed in federal court in Chicago.
The lawsuit seeks class-action status for Southwest customers in the U.S. with unredeemed drink coupons.
The airline declined to comment on the lawsuit, but Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said the airline changed the policy on drink coupons because some passengers were making photocopies of the coupons to get free multiple drinks.
“We made the decision to post an expiration date on the coupon to prevent the unauthorized copying of the coupons,” Eichinger said.