Summer is upon us, and we are facing important travel decisions. Such as who to blame when we get stuck in interminable airport lines.
So many options. There’s the government, but how many times can you can complain about Congress in the course of a lifetime? There’s the public – air traffic up 12 percent since 2011. But really, people, don’t blame yourself.
Let’s pick a rant that’s good for you, good for me, good for the lines in security: Make the airlines stop charging fees for checked baggage.
Seems simple, doesn’t it? Plus, if you do manage to make it to your flight, these are the same people who will be announcing there’s a $3 fee if you want a snack.
The largest airlines charge $25 for the first checked bag, thus encouraging people to drag their belongings through the airport, clogging the X-ray lines and slowing the boarding process as everybody fights to cram one last rolling duffel into the overhead compartment.
The idea that travelers should be hit by an extra charge for, um, having luggage began in 2008, when the cost of fuel went through the roof. We understood the airlines’ pain, sort of. Maybe. But now fuel prices have fallen into the cellar. The airlines are taking in stupendous profits – last year nearly $26 billion after taxes, up from $2.3 billion in 2010.
Yet the baggage fees are still with us. In fact, they’ve gone up by about two-thirds. Last year, the nation’s airlines made more than $3.8 billion off what I believe it is fair to call a scam. It’s also an excellent way to make your prices look lower than they really are when people surf for the cheapest ticket, a number that never includes details like the special fees for bags, food, canceling a reservation, booking by phone, sitting in a minimally more comfortable emergency row or, in some cases, requesting a pillow.
Shouldn’t the airlines offer up the baggage fee as a token of solidarity with their miserable passengers? The idea has come up. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson asked the airlines to “consider possibly” this modest bow to air travel sanity. Two U.S. senators, Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, wrote a letter to the airlines asking them to just drop the fees during the high-traffic summer months.
We pause now for the sound of silence and crickets chirping.
The airlines have maximized profits by making travel as miserable as possible. Boeing found a way to cram 14 more seats into its largest twin-engine jetliner by reducing the size of the lavatories. Bloomberg quoted a Boeing official as reporting that “the market reaction has been good – really positive.” We presume the market in question does not involve the actual passengers.
But the industry is so powerful that it seems to be able to get away with squishing people into smaller and smaller spaces. Last month, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York offered an amendment to a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration that would have imposed a moratorium on reductions in seat size and space between rows. It failed, 54-42.
Nobody spoke out against the proposal, but only one Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, voted for it. We salute Susan Collins, who has been, for a number of years, virtually the entire population of the Moderate Republican Caucus.
When Schumer flies, his first move is to empty the seat pocket in front of him.
“I take out the magazine and the airsickness bag so I have an extra eighth of an inch,” he said in a phone interview.
It’s a matter of some passion – when the presidents of three airlines visited Schumer’s office for discussion of a totally unrelated issue, he moved the coffee table so it was an inch from their knees. “I said: ‘OK, now you know how it feels.’”
But about the bags.
Rather than reducing the number of bags in security lines, the airlines would like the government to deal with the problem by adding more workers to screen them. And the perpetually beleaguered Transportation Security Administration is going to spend $34 million to hire more people and pay more overtime this summer. Which, it assured the public, is not really going to solve much of anything.
(Who, you may ask, pays for the security lines anyway? For the most part you the taxpayer do. Also you the passenger pay a special security fee on your tickets. Which Congress tends to grab away from the TSA for use in all-purpose deficit reduction. I know, I know.)
A spokesman for Delta Air Lines, which took in more than $875 million on baggage fees last year, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that bowing to the extremely modest Markey-Blumenthal request for a summer suspension of the baggage fee wouldn’t “really help alleviate a lot.” It would also, he said, require a “considerable change to the business model.”
Heaven forfend we mess with the business model.