Airlines: Fees, fees and more fees... and a deal!

Airline fees were back in the news this week, with Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air raising their first-checked-bag charge from $15 to $20, and American Airlines announcing it will sell new  "Boarding and Flexibility" packages to domestic coach passengers who want to board planes ahead of others, fly standby or change a flight itinerary.

 What's this all about?

Business is picking up, and with the busy summer travel season here, airlines see it as a good time to begin adding to a menu of charges for services they once provided free.

 Alaska/Horizon's move came with some good news. It reduced its fee for checking a second and third checked bag. Checking one, two or three bags will cost a flat $20 each. Most major airlines now charge $23-$25 to check a first bag and $32-$35 for the second. Exempt from the fees are first and business class passengers and premium members of the airlines' frequent flier programs.

 At least Alaska offers a guarantee that you'll get what you pay for. If your bags don't arrive in baggage claim within 20 minutes after your flight reaches the gate, you get your choice of 2,000 frequent flier miles or $25 off a future flight. Click here to read more.

Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines still allows all passengers to check bags for free, and it seems like the policy is winning it business as well as heaps of goodwill.

Seattle Times readers posted nearly 40 comments on our website this week about baggage fees. I loved this one from someone who signed on as "Anonamoose'' from Maltby:

    Flying Public to Airlines: 

We understand that it's a difficult business in which to make money. However, constantly changing policies regarding luggage, most of which prompt passengers to abuse the carry-on bag allowances (which are seldom enforced properly) only make an uncomfortable airplane passenger experience worse.

Please establish a simple luggage policy that applies for all items that passengers bring (checked or not): a standard market price per (pound x mile). A bag that weighs 100 pounds costs as much to travel 10 miles as a 10-pound bag costs to travel 100 miles, whether the bag is crammed in an overstuffed cabin bin or whether it's thrown in the cargo bay. Charge the same standard rate!!!

To the inevitable naysayers who don't want their luggage weighed: it already is weighed and scanned. Advocating a simple, transparent, predictable, non-predatory pricing policy won't cost more money. It will, however, bring logic back to the game of who can stuff more junk in the overhead bin.

  Read all the comments here (and feel free to add your own).

Onto American Airline's new "Your Choice'' packages. For $9-$19 each way, depending on the route, the airline will offer a package that includes:

• A place in Group 1 of general boarding, which American says "allows you to be one of the first groups to board the plane ... immediately following Priority AAccess customers."
The main advantage presumably is first crack at overhead bin space, which has grown tighter as more people carry on bags to avoid checked bag fees.
• A $75 discount on flight-change fees. American typically charges $150 for this service on most types of tickets. Some airlines, such as Southwest, which also has no bag fees, charge no change fees.
• The option to go on standby for an earlier flight on your day of departure. American earlier eliminated standby for all except its premium customers. It sells a "Confirmed Flight Change" option for $50 that entitles a passenger to get a confirmed seat and boarding pass for another flight on the same day of travel.
In addition, American said that later this summer it will offer a stand-alone option for passengers to join the Group 1 priority boarding line for an extra $10 each way. The option will be available for purchase up to one hour before a flight's scheduled departure.
As you might guess, this too generated some interested comments from Times readers. Click here to read more. 
Here's your chance to weigh in
The Department of Transportation is proposing a raft of new consumer protections for air travelers, including a requirement that airlines refund baggage fees if luggage is delayed or lost. 

Airlines are expected to file lengthy rebuttals during a 60-day public comment period ending August 6. Here's how you can weigh in:

1) Click here and type in and type in DOT-OST-2010-0140 where it says “Enter Keyword or ID.” Hit “Search,” then scroll down to “Enhacing Airine Passengers Protections.” Click there to read the new proposals, or go to “Submit a Comment” to comment and read what others have to say.
2) Click here, for the website set up by Cornell University. This site includes a place for public comments, a moderated discussion on key points, and clear explanations of what the problems have been and how the new rules would solve them.

How to find a deal 

Is it possible anymore? Finding an airline deal can be like rolling the dice. Sometimes you just get lucky. More on this in my latest Travel Wise column for the Seattle Times. Click here. 

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