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Airlines, passengers squabble over baggage fees

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By Nancy Trejos
Sunday, February 21, 2010

When she heard how much US Airways was going to charge to check her suitcase for a recent flight to Houston from Washington, Mary Barber took drastic action.

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At the check-in counter agent's suggestion, the Southeast Washington resident ran into a store at the Reagan National terminal and snapped up a neon-green nylon bag on sale for $6. She stuffed what she could from her suitcase into it. The remainder went into a cloth Whole Foods tote she had packed in her bag.

Then Barber called her mother and asked her to come pick up the suitcase she had unloaded because it was over the 50-pound weight limit for checked luggage, thanks to some serious overpacking for a two-week visit with her daughter.

The price for checking a bag for most passengers in coach: $25. The price for checking an overweight bag: an additional $50. That was $75 more than Barber was willing to pay.

"I hate it," she said, of airlines' growing penchant for levying hefty baggage fees. "It's already expensive for a ticket."

Barber was doing her best to channel George Clooney's checked-bags-are-for-suckers character in the Oscar-nominated movie "Up in the Air." Who can blame her? Last year, airlines reported nearly four cases of mishandled bags among every 1,000 passengers, even as they started charging more for checked luggage to increase revenues. As a result, passengers are increasingly -- and frantically -- searching for alternatives. They are packing their belongings more methodically into carry-on bags (and carrying too many of those onboard), leaving behind items they would normally travel with, shipping luggage to their destinations, or deliberately taking oversize bags to the gate in the hope that gate agents will check them for free.

Ever-changing fees, meanwhile, are just the latest wrinkle in a chaotic baggage situation confronting today's airline passengers. Add it to heightened security, more overcrowded flights and fewer amenities in the air, and you have to wonder: Could it be the straw that makes airline travelers finally, well, bag it?

* * *

The failed Christmas Day attempt by the Underwear Bomber to blow up a plane sparked the latest round of baggage-related unpleasantness. Carry-on bags are coming under much more scrutiny, and because there are so many more of them, lines at security checkpoints have gotten even more unwieldy, to say the least.

"It has reached a tipping point as far as a hassle factor," said Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights, an online flight search tool. "I think we just have to live with the chaos until the next shoe drops, whatever that will be."

At the same time, passengers are struggling with a bewildering array of rules on carry-on luggage. The Transportation Security Administration allows each passenger one carry-on bag and one "personal item," such as a laptop, a purse, a small backpack, a briefcase or a camera case. But as George Hobica, creator of low-airfare-alert site Airfarewatchdog.com, said, "The personal item is a somewhat gray area."

The TSA screens any bag that fits through its X-ray machines, but it's up to the airlines to determine carry-on sizes. And they're all different. A JetBlue carry-on can't be longer than 17 inches, for instance, while Frontier allows up to 24 inches. It's also up to the airlines to enforce their carry-on rules, so many have sizers at their check-in counters to let people measure their bags. American even designed new sizers for each of its gates. But on recent visits to two airports, I didn't see a single passenger measuring a bag. The sizers stood ignored and forlorn.


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