Airlines are charging for the wrong bags

Fees for carry-on luggage make much more sense.

Flying with luggage this summer? It's going to cost you. Last week, United Airlines and US Airways joined American Airlines in charging for even one checked bag. Additional bags cost more.

"With record-breaking fuel prices, we must pursue new revenue opportunities while continuing to offer competitive fares, by tailoring our products and services around what our customers value most and are willing to pay for," a United official explained.

On the surface, that seems like a reasonable rationale and business strategy. But anyone who flies regularly knows what a disaster this will be.

Many passengers will simply avoid the fees by stuffing more and more of their belongings into the cabin. With overhead compartment and seat space already scarce, this policy could turn many flight boardings into a running of the bulls.

The new fees are also bad PR at a time of economic uncertainty. In most cases, they won't even apply to laptop-toting business travelers and first-class patrons. Instead, they'll end up being a heavy tax on families and other economy-class travelers.

It doesn't have to be this way. Instead of charging for checked bags, airlines could probably raise more revenue and improve the quality of the flight experience by doing just the opposite: charging for carry-on luggage.

Under this arrangement, flyers determined to keep their bags within arm's reach can pay a premium to do so. And those who want to save money can do so by checking bags free of charge.

Such price incentives would shorten security lines, bring order to boarding, and help bring out the humanity in all of us at airports. Imagine: Even late boarders (who are willing to pay) could find space in an overhead compartment – perhaps even the one above their own seat.

As things stand now, though, airline policies are about to exacerbate space problems in the cabin.

Passengers are limited to one carry-on bag and one "personal item," but these items seem to be getting bigger all the time. And passengers either can't or won't fit their bulging bags beneath the seat – which means the overhead bins become a major battle-ground.

In this war for space, waiting for your seating area to be called is a sure way to lose.

I should know. I wait my turn to board – only to find the overhead bins already stuffed. That means a flight attendant has to find a place for my bag somewhere else in the cabin, or check it for delivery just as I exit the aircraft, which can often take an amazingly long time.

Airlines know that people prefer to bring their bags on board because they want to avoid the time and hassle needed to collect them at baggage claim and the risk that they'll be lost.

Charging to check bags, then, is foolish because it is an attempt to get passengers to pay for something that they don't want to do anyway – and will seek to avoid by trying to bring more of their baggage on board.

That's why charging for bringing luggage on board makes good sense. Those who are adept at barging their way first onto the plane will complain loudly if the airlines initiate this proposal.

The rest of us, though, will take great comfort in knowing that they have to pay extra when they stuff the overhead compartments with their oversize luggage.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University and an all-too-frequent flyer.

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