JetBlue nixes free checked bags. How do other airline fees compare?

JetBlue has eliminated its policy allowing all customers to check one bag for free and introduced a system that bases baggage fees on fare prices. How does JetBlue's new system compare with other airline baggage policies?

Lucas Jackson/Reuters/File
An airport worker fuels a JetBlue plane on the tarmac of the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. JetBlue, which has proudly proclaimed itself a holdout on fees for years, said it will now charge up to $25 for checked luggage, although many passengers will pay less by planning ahead.

JetBlue will start charging up to $25 for a checked bag, giving into pressure from investors to join other airlines in charging passengers to check baggage. JetBlue’s baggage fees are not fixed, however, meaning it still has a slight price advantage over many of its competitors.

Most of the major US airlines, including Delta, US Airways, and American Airlines, all charge $25 for the first checked bag and $35 for a second bag for domestic flights. Spirit Airlines currently charges $30 for passengers’ first checked bag and $40 for a second bag if customers book online. Spirit also charges an additional $35 for an extra carry-on bag. Southwest Airlines is now  the only major US airline carrier that doesn’t charge a baggage fee.

JetBlue, meanwhile, is implementing a three-tier fare that offers customers different fares depending on how many bags  they plan to check, according to details first reported in The Associated Press . JetBlue announced back in November that it would implement a new fare system that offered different prices depending on whether a passenger checked one or two bags, but it did not specify how or when it would be implemented.

Gary Leff, who runs ViewFromTheWing, a blog for the frequent flier community, blames the lag between the announcement of the fee changes and their implementation on "IT hurdles" in an e-mail. Technology expenses also may be a factor for why Southwest has yet to implement baggage fees, he adds, “although Southwest has long focused on aircraft utilization – adding checked bag fees means more carry on bags which means a longer boarding and deplaning process.”

JetBlue’s three-tier-system can work in consumers’ favor, if they know what they want. The first fare class, called Blue, is the cheapest. It does not include a checked bag, but passengers can add one for a fee. It will cost $20 each way if a customer checks a bag in at a kiosk or online, while it will cost $25 if they check in at the counter. The option makes the most sense for shorter visits, when passengers know they will have just a carry-on bag.

The next fare is Blue Plus, which includes one free checked bag, more frequent flier points, and lower fees to change a reservation. The third and most-expensive tier, Blue Flex, comes with two free checked bags and allows reservation changes without penalty. Considering the baggage fees that come with the first fare tier, Mr. Leff says the premium bundles seem cheaper, and that the checked bag fees overall are reasonable by industry standards.

The fare difference between Blue and Blue Plus will vary depending on route and demand, but the airline told AP the difference should be “about $15.” If that is the case, then customers could save approximately $5 to $10 if they upgrade their tickets. Blue Flex would cost about $100 more each way, on average, than the cheapest tickets and is fully refundable.

The development comes after years of resistance to added fees from JetBlue. Many airlines began to implement checked baggage fees in 2008 in the face of rising jet fuel costs and diminishing profits. Leff says the new baggage fees finally came about for the same reason JetBlue has announced added seats and reduced legroom in recent months: pressure from Wall Street. 

“They don’t believe, or at least the financial community doesn’t believe, that they’re earning the revenue premium necessary to support a more generous product,” he says. “JetBlue’s position is that their product is still better than what many airlines offer even with the fees.”

In the end, JetBlue’s bag costs aren’t exorbitant, Leff says, but the airline is in the process of transforming from one was ahead of the industry in terms of value and customer experience to one that is closer to the rest of the crowd.

“They still offer more free inflight entertainment options than some of their competitors,” he adds. “But to a large extent there’s little reason to be loyal to JetBlue and choose them over competitors at this point.”

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