United is Raising the Price of Checked Bags, But What Do We Get for Our Money?

Alaska Airlines has a 20 minute baggage claim guarantee. They launched this in 2010 it isn’t a new idea. If your bags don’t hit baggage claim within 20 minutes of your plane’s gate arrival they’ll give you your choice of 2500 miles or a $25 discount on your next flight.

Delta competes vigorously against Alaska in Seattle, and introduced their own 20 minute guarantee offering you 2500 miles if they fail to deliver.

Yesterday United became the first big US airline to increase checked bag fees to $30 for first bag (and more for some routes). So what do you get for your money?

In the past when airlines (even United) devalued their offerings they at least tried to claim they were offsetting it in some way. For instance dozen years ago when Mileage Plus devalued their award chart they told members that it was so they could promise award seats would be available on every flight, every day. But a higher bag fee doesn’t come with a promise that begs will be delivered on time.

United says their “purpose is customer service” and that they’re “committed to connecting people, along with their bags, to the moments that matter most.” But beyond that they promise you nothing.

United is telling employees they should tell customers who complain that their “hope is to reinvest in a more enjoyable and caring flight experience.” They don’t promise to do this. They don’t offer you anything if you don’t get a more enjoyable experience for your increased fee.

Not only isn’t United getting more efficient, providing better service at lower cost, they’re raising the price of checked bags and not providing any greater value for your money.

For $30 checked bags should be treated like this:

Or we ought to get to ride the baggage carousel ourselves along with our bags for that kind of money like the singer from Puddle of Mudd did in Denver.

As I wrote when word of this change broke — on the Friday afternoon at the start of Labor Day weekend (a.k.a. “take out the trash day”) — American Airlines is going to have a hard time not following this move, because they’ll have to explain why to investors who naively think raising prices is how you make more money in a competitive industry. American does not offer a baggage guarantee.

Indeed while delivering bags when you take money to do so is just textbook contract law from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (“bust a deal, face the wheel”) a customer who sued when US Airways failed to deliver her $15 checked bag in a timely manner back in 2011 is still fighting American Airlines over it.

It seems to me that if checked bags are going to be separately charged, then customers should be refunded if their bags are lost and offered compensation if their bags are delayed. But it’s a special type of gall for an airline raise the price of checked bags and not offer basic assurances in return.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I think travelers would be more sympathetic to the fee increase if united simultaneously committed to paying all workers a living wage. That’s a much more palatable explanation than “reinvesting” in the flying “experience”

  2. I wouldn’t mind if DL or AS did this. On my recent UA flight, bag delivery (as a Premier, which should be the fastest) took 45 mins. It was after midnight and the airport wasn’t particularly busy. If DL can make this happen everywhere (while also providing push notifications when the bag is loaded onto the aircraft, arriving at baggage claim, etc), why won’t UA?

  3. Charging for checked luggage is just a terrible idea. Does Southwest charge for luggage? No. It’s time the airlines stopped the race to the bottom. When American stopped its promise of more room in every row it’s become like flying in a cattle car with wings!

  4. So D0 will continue to be a cluster because more people are going to try to carry on and still no baggage guantee. Pitiful.

    Flew a couple weeks ago with WN due to some delays on my original AA ticket. I bought the ticket at the gate about 30 minutes before departure. I was C64 — I didn’t even know they went that high — yet there was overhead space up the wazoo still on the plane. Amazes me how the legacy carriers have created their own problems and refuse to realize it.

  5. “That’s a much more palatable explanation than “reinvesting” in the flying “experience”.”
    Unfortunately, it sounds as empty and pointless.

  6. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again–I firmly believe airline would yield long term gains if they offered every passenger one free bag, but the passenger chooses whether it’s checked or carry-on. Leisure travelers would get their checked bag, business travelers would get their carry-on, and boarding would be much smoother & faster, thus allowing for faster turnarounds.

  7. Great response TRC! The sooner the airlines realize they can be more productive by having customers check bags which simplifies boarding, the more on time flights we will have ( hear that Delta!). Why don’t they offer free checked bags and charge for any carry on that won’t fit under the seat.

  8. AA and DL will match this very shortly, just like AC and WS raised fees within days of each other in Canada.

    In this wonderful world of airline consolidation, this is how the “free market” plays. Go back to all the assurances of customer benefit the 6 US airlines made when they merged to become 3. And then elect politicians who will hold these companies’ feet to the fire.

  9. “@James – not to the workers whose wages are increased!”
    Honestly? Are you suggesting that workers who receive a raise for doing nothing, will find that inviting? I’m shocked.

  10. Tax cuts aren’t enough to fund the obscenely large stock buybacks.

    Exploding fees aren’t enought to fund the obscenely large stock buybacks.

    Densification isn’t enought to fund the obscenely large stock buybacks.

    So, why the heck not raise bag fees, now, too?

    After all, gotta keep funding those obescenely (criminally?) large stock buybacks…

    (There must’ve been a good reason why stock buybacks were ILLEGAL for most of the 20th century – until, yep, if you said a Republican administration changed the rules to rig the econony for the benefit of 1% of the population, you’d be correct bc it was during the Reagan years that stock buybacks were made legal again, after having been outlawed for good reason during much of the 20th century.

    Too ripe for abuse – it’s practically legalized thievery as our oligopolist airlines are demonstrating quite well these days!)

  11. @TRC This is a terrific idea – except that most people won’t check a carry-on sized bag if they expect to have to wait 30 minutes or more for the bag after arriving at baggage claim (i.e. 45 minutes from gate arrival). That seems to be the norm at ORD for UA, which had a 45-minute goal (i.e. “hope”) last time I asked.

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