Riddle me this

Why does it cost $35 to check a second bag when ramp-checking a carry-on is free?

Airlines now charge for baggage: it’s a way of raising the actual price of flying without changing the sticker price that appears when the booking is made. And it also, presumably, reflects some real costs; when people avoid the bag fee by sending their luggage ahead by FedEx Ground, that saves the airline the cost of the extra fuel required by the extra weight plus the cost of handing the bag on the ground.

But fuller flights mean that on-board baggage space is scarce, so airlines also ask people if they’re willing to gate-check their carry-ons. Doing so is free.

As a result, if I’m flying with two bags (plus my laptop) I check the big one at the ticket counter, carry the smaller one (small enough to carry aboard) through security, and then hand it to the gate agent or one of the cabin crew to be tagged. That’s less convenient for me than checking two bags, and I can’t imagine it saves the airline any money. So what’s the point of doing it this way, rather than charging only for bags too big to be carry-ons?

Keith asked and answered the parallel question about why airlines now charge if you want to stand by for an earlier flight; people were buying cheap seats on the last flight out and then standing by for earlier, pricier flights, and the new rule prevents that. But I can’t figure out why the airlines encourage ramp-checking. Are there people who choose to pay an extra $35 to check a second bag at the counter rather than the gate? Any thoughts?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

12 thoughts on “Riddle me this”

  1. Not everyone is an experienced traveler. Some people need/want 2 big bags. Some people are reimbursed for their baggage fees.

  2. I used to do just the opposite of what Keith did. When I was flying into DC every other week I would buy my tickets early, always with a Friday return around 5 or 6. If I finished early I would pay nothing to go on an earlier flight, since the airline knew it could sell that seat for more than I paid for it. Now, of course, they charge for any change, regardless of how it impacts on their revenue.

  3. I too used to do what MikeM describes. The late seats out of DC are always in higher demand. Maybe a case of "it's easier (= cheaper) to have a uniform rule" (imagine trying to explain every time why you charge to stand by for some flights but not others). But it does seem odd that with all the real-time yield management pricing that goes on, airlines can't figure out a way to set up standby pricing to capture the WTP to get out of Dallas ASAP, and stay in DC as long as possible.

  4. Charging only for large bags would require enforcement of number of carry on bags.

    They don't charge at the gate because it would cause a war in the isles, especially for earlier boarding times. It would also seem like you're holding their flight hostage for another $30 bucks. Why it doesn't seem like that when you check at the counter is beyond me. Perhaps people feel like they are paying for someone else to lug the bag through security, which you've already done if you brought your bag to the gate.

    Still are you saying you show up to a half empty flight, with plenty of overhead space, and casually ask the steward to check your bag for you? Or is this only on flights packed to the gills? On time ratings are big these days, offering to check bags instead of letting passengers play Tetris in the overheads probably saves more money through good reviews/times than it costs in uncollected checked baggage fees.

  5. @ MM

    It does seem like they're holding me hostage. But it's the only game in town. And with more and more flights on matchbox jets like the Embraer and Fokker, carry on space is at a real premium. Flying in to Cincinnati last week, I had to gate check a rather small carry-on on an Embraer because the flight was fully booked and I didn't want to deal with the hassle if there wasn't room. As it turned out, there wasn't room by the time I boarded.

  6. I think MM is suggesting that a passenger could hold a flight hostage by refusing to pay the extra bag fee when there's no room for his carry on. Given that people getting on board before that passenger probably stuffed as much luggage into the carry on compartment as he wants to, he'd have a legitimate beef, too. He's being asked to pay extra for his ticket because you called his row last. Once a passenger gets on the plane, he or she can pretty much derail the flight if they want to make enough of a fuss.

    The only theoretical solution I can see is limiting passengers to only the carry on space above their own seats, and prevent them from spreading down the length of the aisle. Good luck implementing that.

  7. Last November I had to pay to check my bag. It was really annoying. I'd flown (with miles) first class with no charge. When I had to change flights home, I didn't get first class and I had to pay to check my one bag. Delta.

  8. If you're traveling through big airports, maybe with short layovers at other big airports, and one or more small children — then it's totally worth paying up front to not have to drag the big bag along with you through said airports.

    And that's been most of my travel since the policies changed.

    But otherwise? You're totally right about the inconsistency.

    Another question: the charge is per bag, up to 50 pounds. I've gotten REALLY good at packing one 48-pound bag, instead of two smaller ones. I bet the baggage handler's chiropractors love that.

  9. What's the deal with 50 lbs, anyway? I can understand charging for weight, per pound, over some amount, but why such a sharp and expensive cutoff point?

  10. Since the TSA has already set the bar for public humiliation, the airlines could also charge passengers for the carry on baggage carried about the waist and hips by putting them on scales. And, if that baggage exceeds a certain width, charge them for another seat.

  11. Admire your faith in checking carry on baggage with the cabin crew. I did this in the 1980s. Three times, I lost suit bags containing over $4000 worth of custom fitted suits, custom made shirts, and custom made shoes.

    My renter's insurance paid out on the first two claims. The third time I filed a claim complete with receipts, they notified me that they had cancelled my policy after the second claim. Never notified me, just canceled my claim. After calling the state's Insurance Commissioner, they paid out. I was never able to get another renter's insurance policy.

    Whatever I take to an airport, I can carry it myself (ten kilos max) and it will fit under the seat in front of me.

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