LENA MITCHELL: Airline baggage fees to stay, but maybe won’t get worse

During my long-distance travels over the past year I’ve spent more time on airplanes than behind the wheel. Travel is one of my favorite pastimes, and whatever the mode of transportation I’m always eager to go.

For economic reasons I prefer to travel Southwest Airlines, both because of ticket prices and to avoid baggage fees. Of my six flights in the past year, three were on Southwest, two on Delta Air Lines and one on US Airways.

Needless to say, on the three non-Southwest flights baggage fees have been a real hassle.

Most airlines started charging for checked luggage in 2008 with a fee of $15 per suitcase for up to two items. The fee has risen with most of the nation’s top 15 airlines to $25 for the first checked bag and $35 for a second one each way.

According to an article from the Associated Press published in April, the U.S. airline industry collected more than $3.5 billion – yes, billion with a “b” – in baggage and reservation change fees in 2012.

Apparently Delta leads them all, collecting $865.9 million from baggage fees.

If I must fold the baggage fee into the cost of my flight, so be it. But what really got to me as I observed how Delta administers its baggage fee is that they make it easy for some people to “game” the system.

I prefer to pack one larger-then-carryon-size bag for longer trips that must always be checked.

As I make my way through the security checkpoint with a small tote and purse, however, I am surrounded by people with two full carryon bags that obviously are too stuffed to fit into an overhead bin on board the plane. When the passengers with those overstuffed carryon bags arrive at the Delta gate, they’re told that since their bags are too large to fit in the overhead bins they must be checked at the gate – at no charge. The passengers are given a baggage claim check and will retrieve their luggage in the baggage claim area with the rest of us who paid the baggage check fee.

The reason given by airlines in 2008 for imposing the new baggage fees was the increased cost of fuel. When the economy took a nosedive later that year, the baggage charge just seemed to blend into the landscape of so many things that were squeezing tight household budgets.

Somehow, though, when business dynamics that push a rise in prices ease, the falling cost of doing business never seems to trickle down to us consumers.

A recent decision by the U.S. Justice Department may help consumers out with airline charges, though.

The Justice Department this week filed a lawsuit to block the planned merger of US Airways and American Airlines, saying the combined company would cost travelers hundreds of millions of dollars in higher fares and fees.

The Justice Department says baggage fees and other fees could rise in instances where one airline has higher charges than the other. In a combined company the fees would convert to the higher charge. Fare competition on one route the Justice Department attorney identified would disappear, where currently US Airways charges $471 compared with $740 for American Airlines.

Contrary to what some people believe about wanting businesses to have the widest latitude possible to make decisions to benefit their shareholders, I’m grateful there are still some government agencies with powerful voices that work on behalf of consumers to help our money go a little bit farther.

LENA MITCHELL is the Daily Journal Corinth Bureau reporter and writes a Sunday column each month. Contact her atlena.mitchell@journalinc.com.