There has been a lot of righteous indignation displayed by government officials (primarily by U.S. senators and Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood) over the proposal by Spirit Airlines to charge passengers for carry-on bags.  Specifically, Spirit Airlines has said that it will charge $45 for carry-on luggage using the overhead bins.  Some of the responses are almost comical:

“We are going from the sublime to the ridiculous with airlines,” Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said at a news conference last week in Washington.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the fee a “slap in the face to travelers.” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) called it “skyway robbery.”

The lawmakers hope to put the kibosh on the fee by imposing a tax on all airline revenue collected from such charges.

I’m not a frequent flyer, but I’ve flown enough to recognize that baggage fees have created a big problem with boarding airplanes.  In the era of the checked baggage fee people have chosen to cram everything into a carry-on.  Of course, when everyone brings a full-sized carry-on there is not enough room in the overhead bins for all the passenger luggage and the airline inevitably spends a lot of time placing carry-on bags in.

So, to combat that Spirit Airlines has instituted a carry-on bag fee.  What has been glossed over is that Spirit is merely providing incentive for passengers to check their bags in the first place rather than carrying them on.  The first checked bag will only cost $25 if checked online before arriving at the airport ($20 less than for a potentially smaller carry-on).  Therefore Spirit is merely making the carry-on a luxury and giving reason for people to check their luggage.  Oh my!  Senators are really upset that flights will run more smoothly and that Spirit may actually assist with difficulty of TSA security checks?

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe looks at this issue from a free market perspective.

But if [Senator Charles] Schumer grieves so deeply about travelers being “nickeled and dimed’’ when they fly, why has he never gone after the US ticket tax, which adds 7.5 percent to the price of every domestic flight? Or the $16.50 the federal government charges for each international departure and arrival? Or the $17 in customs and inspection fees paid by passengers flying into US airports from abroad? Or the “passenger facilities charges’’ (up to $18 per round-trip)? Or the “US Security Service Fee’’ ($2.50 per departure)? Or the “domestic segment fee’’ ($3.70 per flight segment)? The government’s unremitting “nickeling and diming’’ of airline passengers doesn’t trouble the sleep of New York’s senior senator. Only when a private firm acts does he toss and turn in anguish.

Reality check: Every airline charges for its overhead bins, just as every airline charges for bathrooms, oxygen masks, and flight attendants. The cost of those amenities is built into the fare you pay when you fly, and you pay whether you use them or not. The same used to be true of the “free’’ meals, pillows, and baggage handling airlines provided, before they unbundled those services, made them optional, and began charging for them separately. Spirit, an ultra-low cost carrier that describes itself as “the unbundling leader in the industry,’’ has decided to do the same for carry-on luggage, simultaneously reducing its base fares by $40 or more each way. …

Is Spirit’s strategy a good one? The free market can answer that question faster and more accurately than any one of us can. The less assistance it gets from grandstanding senators and transportation secretaries, the better off all travelers will be.

I agree that politicians have found a pinata not worthy of their attack, especially given that Spirit Airlines has less than 3% of the US market share for airlines.

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