Carry-on crackdown vs. red carpet treatment from airlines

United enforces bag-size limit amid growing trend toward more itemization of airline services

Staff, news servicesMarch 9, 2014 

Groups of passengers wait at a United Airlines gate to board a flight in separate numbered lanes at O’Hare International Airport last year in Chicago. In February, United Airlines installed new bag sizers at airports and emailed its frequent fliers reminding them of baggage rules.

M. SPENCER GREEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE, 2013

United Airlines is getting tough on passengers with oversize carry-on bags.

The Chicago-based airline has installed new bag-sizers at most airports. It also emailed its frequent fliers, reminding them of its rules on carry-on size. United says there is no change in policy — just a campaign to improve passenger awareness.

Some of United’s new sizers are located ahead of security checkpoints. Employees contracted by the airline will send passengers whose bag exceeds the dimensions for carry-ons back to the ticket counter, where they check the bag and pay a $25 fee. Airlines have traditionally asked people with oversize bags to check them at the gate, but waived the $25 fee at that point.

Some travelers are suggesting this is part of a larger attempt by United to collect more fees. The airline says it’s simply trying to speed up boarding.

The size limits on carry-on bags have been in place for years, but airlines have been inconsistent in enforcing them. Passengers are allowed one carry-on bag to fit in the overhead bin that needs to be 9 inches by 14 inches by 22 inches or smaller. They can also bring along one personal item such as a purse or laptop bag that fits under the seat in front of them.

The process of getting on a plane dramatically changed in 2008 when U.S. airlines started charging $25 to check a suitcase. To avoid the fee, more passengers started bringing their suitcases — many of them overstuffed — into the airplane cabin. Suddenly there wasn’t enough room in the overhead bins for everyone’s bag.

Although more United passengers may end up paying a $25 fee, having fewer bags on board could also have its benefits.

“I’ve been whacked more times than I can count by people loaded down with their life’s worldly possessions,” says Brian Kelly, an industry watcher who writes about flying trends at ThePointsGuy.com.

Sea-Tac Airport’s dominant air carrier, Alaska Airlines, said last week that it’s not changing its practices regarding oversize carry-ons.

Alaska spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said gate agents who see a passenger boarding with a bag that appears to be larger than will fit in the overhead compartments or under the seats will ask that passenger to place their bag in the sizer to see if it exceeds the set dimensions.

If it exceeds those measurements, the gate personnel will offer to gate check the bag, charging the appropriate extra fee.

Alaska charges $25 for each of the first two checked bags and $75 each for the third and fourth checked bags. Alaska residents who are members of Alaska’s Club 49 are allowed two free checked bags when traveling to, from or within Alaska. Members of the airline’s elite level frequent flier program also are allowed to check two bags free of charge.

Passengers on Alaska flights flown by its sister airline, Horizon Air, or by contracted carrier SkyWest, have the option of placing their bags on a baggage cart near the entrance to the plane free of charge. Those who use the a la cart program pick up their bags from the baggage cart or from the jet bridge at their destination.

BIG MONEY IN CHECKING BIG BAGS

United collects $638 million in checked-bag fees a year but wants to increase that figure. In a January earnings call, the airline’s chief revenue officer, Jim Compton, said United hopes to collect an extra $700 million from extras such as baggage fees and the sale of extra legroom during the next four years.

Those fees have helped the airline industry return to profitability even as the price of fuel has climbed.

Other airlines have bag sizers at checkpoints, but enforcement was sporadic at best.

American Airlines asks staff at some of its largest airports “to do an eyeball test on size of carry-ons.” The airline has even used tape measures to enforce polices.

Delta Air Lines said that “during peak times at hubs and larger airports” it has agents near security to look for oversize carry-on bags and has improved technology to check bags faster at gates.

United is going further than other airlines. Its bag sizers have a space for bags going in overhead bins and another for those items going under the seats.

PREPARE TO PAY MORE FOR PAMPERING

Despite the baggage crackdown with some airlines, you still can receive rock-star treatment, for a price. The more you spend with an airline, the more you get in return.

“At the highest level of service and status, airlines will meet and greet passengers at the curb, provide private screening and whisk them to planeside in a sedan car on the ramp,” Jay Sorensen, president of Shorewood, Wis., airline consulting firm IdeaWorks, said last month in a report on the topic. “This level of service normally eludes ‘you and me’ but is now within the grasp of anyone with the swipe of a credit card.”

In some cases, Delta Air Lines will even deliver you to your flight in a Porsche, Sorensen says in his report.

It used to be that airlines reserved regal in-flight treatment for only their highest-mileage frequent fliers. Those days have flown off into the sunset.

Delta Air Lines said recently that it is changing its frequent-flier program so its biggest spenders get the most rewards.

Delta’s program “will better recognize frequent business travelers and those less frequent leisure customers who purchase premium fares,” the airline said in announcing the change. The trend is more aligned with reality, Sorensen said.

“It always astounded me that a traveler could spend $5,000 on round-trip business class to Europe and really get very few points (miles), maybe twice the number of miles as the person traveling on the lowest fare,” he said.

Delta’s new program, which takes effect in 2015, isn’t entirely new in the industry and will closely resemble the program Southwest introduced in 2011, Sorensen said.

“Their model is, basically, if you are paying for a low-price fare, you’re going to earn a certain number of points (miles) per dollar spent,” Sorensen said of Southwest. “If you buy an expensive business-type fare, that multiple increases so you earn points even faster.

“For people who are buying the cheapest fares, your benefits from a frequent flier program are going to be far more limited now,” he said.

For the airline industry, a business in which bankruptcies had become as common as canceled flights in a snowstorm, had to change its business model. Selling services or upgrades is part of the equation.

“If you have the money, you can buy just about whatever you want,” said Peggy Fischer, owner of Shooting Star Travels in West Bend, Wis. “And people are becoming way more accepting of that.”

Part of the trend also stems from the airlines seeing private, third-party companies cashing in on services.

“What triggers it is, there were a number of independent companies who were found to be charging customers for what amounts to a meet-and-greet service that shepherds them through the process,” said Robert Mann, an independent airline consultant in New York.

The trend shows no signs of slowing.

“Look for more airlines to simply use pay-as-you-go, also known as a la carte, methods to also seduce more revenue from those willing to buy more perks,” Could pay toilets on flights be next? Ireland’s Ryanair once toyed with the idea.

The Associated Press, staff writer John Gillie and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.

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