Why Raising Checked Bag Fees Won’t Help Airlines Make More Money

Just over a week ago United became the first big US airline to increase first checked bag fees to $30. Leslie Josephs of CNBC asks, is there anything left to charge passengers for?

The problem airlines face is that charging for things that are included in a ticket now, or raising fees, is really just a price increase. And passengers may not be willing to pay more, some may stay home or drive.

If a price increase meant more money for the airline, airlines would raise prices. Some passengers may be willing to spend more money to travel than others, yet they’re all offered the same fare. So charging separately for the services that price inelastic passengers want can make great sense. Checked bag fees are most often paid by price-sensitive leisure travelers, though.

Even if an airline targets their price increase narrowly on the subset of customers willing to pay more they still need to hope that other airlines match or else customers might just buy from someone another airline that’s offering a better deal.

The alternative here is to introduce new services they can charge for that passengers will actually value. In other words, earn a revenue premium by delivering greater value to customers.

  • Just raising price in a competitive industry is unlikely to work. Airfare prices have been trending down, not up.

  • Just raising fees pulls money out of the fare, it doesn’t mean people become willing to spend more for their trip.

There was a time maybe when higher fees would catch consumers by surprise. Since checked bag fees were new once a year travelers might not have expected them. They’d buy a ticket and ultimately spend more than they planned to because they’d get to the airport and have to pay another charge. Everyone knows about checked bag fees today which is why they’re unpopular.

And there was a time when customers might not have been able to do the math, but the reason American Airlines is bringing back carry on bags to basic economy is because they discovered customers could do the math (or sites like Google could do it for them) and so they were losing business to Delta which offered similar fares but allowed carry on bags. That meant the basic economy carry on restriction made American Airlines more expensive for the same service Delta was offering and they saw customers book away.

Airlines didn’t really make $4.5 billion in checked bag fees last year. They charged $4.5 billion in checked bag fees, but that’s an accounting game. Airfares fall and fees go up, it’s the net of the two that matters.

And domestic airfares including fees are lower today than they were in 2008 [inflation adjusted dollars]. 2008 is the year American Airlines became the first major US airline to introduce first checked bag fees.

Source: Airlines for America

Of course the tax code incentivizes airlines to move money out of the fare and into fees, because for domestic travel that saves them the federal 7% excise tax. If they can move $1 billion into checked bag fees for the year that means they save $70 million in taxes.

Raising checked bag fees will further incentivize passengers to try to bring even more onboard the plane, further delay boardings, and create less efficient airline operations. That can cost an airline as much or more than they take in in bag fees.

A few minutes here and there is a big deal to an airline, Southwest’s CEO claimed “It would cost us approximately 8 to 10 airplanes of flying per day if we were to add just a couple of minutes of block time to each flight in our schedule.”

That’s because you don’t just push your schedule later into the night, you have to schedule flights when passengers want to fly and at times they’re most.

Delta and American will have a hard time not matching United’s price increase on checked bags, which followed JetBlue’s price increase, because they need to look like they’re doing something and most observers aren’t sophisticated enough to realize that raising fees isn’t the same as generating more revenue.

American though knows that they have a problem with premium revenue. The question is whether they’ll figure out the way to generate more revenue is to provide greater value to customers, rather than expecting customers to pay more and get less.

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. Gary, I think your last point is a good one and we are looking at putting premium air fresheners in our 737 mini lavs.

  2. “If a price increase meant more money for the airline, airlines would raise prices.”

    While true in the sense of basic economics … it is too simplistic. Pricing psychology is real.

  3. @Justin – I think I address that, and how it’s becoming less relevant as online booking becomes more transparent and tailored to individual trip needs

  4. I don’t really think so … you established that they’re making less money in combined fares and bag fees versus the first year bag fees were introduced (a reasonable enough year to cherrypick), but didn’t establish any causation. The lines are also fairly close together since the 2000’s recession ended. One could pretty easily argue, for instance, that the decision to introduce bag fees was made with economic data that doesn’t reflect reality during a recession/depression and that’s why it didn’t work during one — if you even establish that’s the reason for the lower combined fare in the first place.

  5. “Raising checked bag fees will further incentivize passengers to try to bring even more onboard the plane, further delay boardings, and create less efficient airline operations. ” – yep. Just had a Delta flight where of course everybody tried to bring their luggage onboard and there was no space for it. Delayed us for like 30 minutes, because people did not understand the concept that there was no more space for their luggage on the plane and it had to be checked. On top of that the Delta luggage bins were smaller than any other bin I have seen in my last 20 flights. All of this created delays and caused unnecessary conflict etc.

  6. Maybe if they lowered check bag fees more people would pay to check bags and might increase revenue, maybe. I’m surprised they haven’t hit the international flights harder on check bag fees.

  7. @Gary – Typo: They charged $4.5 million in checked bag fees, but that’s an accounting game.

    They charged $4.5 billion . . .

  8. Not true. There’s still a fee they can add, the most obvious and valuable one: carry-on fees instead of checked bags fees.

    Carry on fees would be paid by people who are most insensitive (business people on expense accounts). Airline costs would go down due to faster boarding times (remember when boarding 20-25 minutes prior to departure was sufficient — and this was only 10 years ago, prior to AA’s bag fees): 10 less airplanes is ~ $700 million dollar savings, and faster on-the-ground times mean lower airport and crew staffing costs as well. Plus customer satisfaction would go way, way up (it’s no coincidence that Southwest’s is so high and people actually pay more to fly it) — starting a flight having to schlep heavy bags trough security, being stuck in an endless boarding line, and having to fight for overhead is a terrible experience that mars the entire trip.

  9. How often do non-normies actually have to check a bag AND pay for it? If you fly a lot you’ve got your shit together enough you can almost always just carry on a bag. Or you’ve got a credit card or have status or are flying first.

    I say bring on all the “fare increases” I don’t have to pay.

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