Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Checking a bag? It'll cost you.

Today, American Airlines announced a new policy for checked baggage on its flights: following the model of highly profitable RyanAir in Europe, the largest U.S. carrier will now be charging $15 for the first piece of luggage that a passenger checks.

To be fair, American Airlines is hurting, and it's not alone. Higher fuel prices have affected every airline in the world. Most airlines now spend more on fuel costs than on any other aspect of their operations. There have also been massive cuts in carrier service, with nearly 30 cities across the United States so far this year losing service altogether.

The new policy applies to discounted Coach fares, so those lucky few who travel in Business or First class--or business travelers who travel on unrestricted Class Y Coach tickets--won't be affected. American also says that it will not charge to check a stroller or car seat if a parent is traveling with a child. Everyone else, though, had better be prepared to pay when the policy takes effect on June 15.

Checked bags have long been subject to fees, especially for being overweight, and some of the ultra-low fare carriers (like now-defunct Skybus) had previously tried the RyanAir model. Never before, though, has the privilege of a free checked bag been called into question by a major U.S. carrier.

For Americans, this is a real shift, as pronounced as when most(1) airlines suspended meal service for Coach-class passengers in 2004. And it matters, because at a time when every airline is looking for ways to cut costs, you can bet that American is only the first of many carriers that will adopt this new policy.

(1) Continental Airlines continues to serve complimentary meals to Coach passengers.

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