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Opinion How a low-level decision on baggage fees spotlights the worst of Trump

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

There’s so much going on out there. Tax reform! President Trump sliming Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for calling on him to resign! Voting in Alabama!

So let’s take a moment to discuss airline baggage fees. No, really.

Last week, the Trump administration announced they were scuttling an Obama era proposal that would have mandated airlines show the cost of flying with baggage at the beginning of the process of buying a ticket.

This may seem like an inconsequential, low-profile decision. And in many ways it is. But there has been a surprisingly fierce outcry in response to it. The Economist wrote about it. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer held a press conference on the topic. And, of course, people took to Twitter.

There’s a reason for this. As ridiculous as bellyaching over the baggage fee decision may seem, it actually symbolizes and embodies some of the very worst aspects of the Trump presidency. Despite campaigning on a pledge to drain the swamp, the Trump administration has worked tirelessly to weaken the power of consumers on multiple fronts. His administration tilts its decisions in favor of capital and big business, and against ordinary citizens, at every turn. No opportunity to do this is too small to pass up.

As I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you, airlines and travel websites don’t exactly make it easy for us consumers to do price comparisons. They’ve long since figured out that in the Internet era, the lowest price lures many people in. So they lead with low, low fares and then gouge you for such things as checking your bags.

But in many cases that information is not exactly easy to find. It often doesn’t come up when you are initially comparing airlines or selecting a specific flight and fare. Instead in many cases you need to select the flight, choose your fare class, fill out all your information and only then – bam! – you discover that wonderful economy fare you found is actually $25 or $50 more when you check your luggage.

And more and more people pay up. According to new figures released by the Department of Transportation, the airlines made off with a record $1.2 billion between July and September of this year alone, an increase of 10 percent from the same period in 2016.

American life increasingly consists of these sorts of scams, something consumer reporter Bob Sullivan likes to call “Gotcha Capitalism.”

To be clear, the Obama administration wasn’t banning the baggage fees. They were simply attempting to restore a modicum of fairness to the process, by requiring that the baggage fees be disclosed along with the airfare from the beginning of the ticket ordering process. This way, people could make an informed decision about how much money a particular flight would cost them.

But this wasn’t acceptable to lobbyists for the airline industry, which immediately expressed its fury. “It would be difficult to find an industry that is more transparent than the airline industry; customers always know exactly what they are paying for before they buy,” a spokesman for Airlines for America, an industry lobbying group, told Travel Weekly, shortly after the regulation was announced.

Have you stopped laughing yet?

Since the Obama administration effort was proposed during the final days of his administration, it was never implemented. And now, thanks to the Trump administration’s decision, it never will be.

But there’s a bigger point here, and it goes beyond an annoying low-level fee. As consumers, we’re urged to shop, to see out the best deal. Left unsaid: This is becoming increasingly impossible in any number of cases. When it comes to medical care, the industry’s oblique cost structure makes all but impossible. Agreements for everything from credit cards to cell phone plans are multi-paged and small print. All this eats away at the quality of American life. It’s not just that all too many of us become chronically suspicious, looking out for every possible rip-off. It’s not just that we’re angry when we get ripped off, as we inevitably do.

The appeal of Trump’s campaign was that he would utilize his business smarts to drain the swamp on our behalf. But instead Trump pulled the ultimate gotcha on those who voted for him. In the guise of empowering Americans, Trump has presided over what for many feels like an increasing powerlessness when it comes to business and politics. The baggage fee issue is only one small manifestation of this. But it’s one that resonates — and will continue to do so.