On baggage fees

Nicholas Beaudrot defends the (second) bag fee against Atrios’s opposition to any fees, and against Matt Yglesias’s defense of all fees for checked luggage. Atrios rightly notes that the fees are part and parcel of the generally crappy air travel experience, Matt argues that the fees discourage excessive packing, thereby reducing the carbon footprint of travel. Nick replies that Matt’s economic analysis fails to consider shifts from checked luggage to carry-on:

bag fees on the first bag encourage two behaviors:

Travelers pack the largest bag they think they can carry on to the plane. This results in higher boarding and de-planing times as they struggle to put their bags in overhead compartments. …
Travelers pack a large bag and expect the flight attendants to deny them the chance to carry it on. But, they don’t (can’t?) charge you for bags they force you to check at the gate. As more and more people figure this out, it will become the norm, and airlines will either be forced to abandon the fee for the first bag, or start charging people at the gate, which means they’ll have to start charging you for checking the stroller, which means the airlines hate children, Congress will intervene, &c.

Air travel would be faster (and therefore better for the airlines) and more pleasant (and therefore better for the airlines) if airlines charged fees for checking the second bag. Charging fees for checking the first bag is probably a loser for the airline.

The cost of one free checked back could easily be built into the cost of a ticket. This would modestly penalize very light packers, but would encourage more environmentally responsible travel. How much you pack is not just a factor of how efficient a packer you are. Longer trips require more clothing, which means a bigger suitcase. It’s better to stay somewhere longer and get more done in one trip than to just bop off for a day, then bop off somewhere else later in the week. If we could get a few people to shift from flying to videoconferencing, riding the train, or even driving (if the distances are short or they are traveling with someone else), we’d reduce carbon emissions and reduce pressure to overfill overhead bins.

Because planes are least efficient during takeoff and landing, short flights (less than 300 miles, say) are up to three times more carbon-intensive than longer flights (transcontinental or transoceanic flights). Flying from San Francisco to LA is almost surely less carbon-efficient than driving, and probably takes no less time. Bring a colleague, friend, or family member, and it’s sure to be cheaper and to have a lower per-capita carbon footprint. Such short-haul flights are typically short stays, and anything that raises the price of such short, inefficient flights, is a good thing. As is Supertrain, which we can hope to get big federal dollars to help construct. A high-speed rail line would be about as fast as a plane, and would get you from downtown to downtown, making it potentially faster door-to-door. Much lower emissions, fewer baggage restrictions, and no onerous screening for nail files and scissors.

As Nick observes, charging for a second bag makes plenty of environmental and economic sense. It really does add to the cost of flying, and there’s no reason that people traveling for a week should subsidize the few people traveling for longer, or traveling with lots of stuff (touring musicians, families with small kids, people moving).

And he’s absolutely right about the overhead bins. The hassle and danger of checking luggage was always a disincentive to check bags. How long did you have to wait to heave your bag off the belt? How many people would you have to elbow to get to the belt when your bag arrived? Would you have to elbow them again to put it back when you realized it was someone else’s black rollaboard? Would the zipper have been destroyed by the TSA screener investigating (and perhaps borrowing) your clothes?

So the overhead bins always filled fast, but now it’s simply a race to get onboard and put your bag in the bin. Someone will surely have to gate-check a bag, and no one wants to be stuck waiting on the jetway to get their bags. So it takes longer to get on the plane, the bins are overstuffed, and getting off the plane takes longer, too. Especially if someone at the front of the plane had to leave their bag at the back.

It’s a simple truth that people travel with luggage. You need clothes, at least. If people are doing the responsible thing and restricting their air travel to long trips to places too far away for car travel to be time- and carbon-efficient, we shouldn’t force them to pay extra just to avoid being stinky.


  1. #1 Russell
    September 24, 2009

    The airlines are missing the obvious: every passenger steps onto a scale with all their bags when checking in, then pays a poundage fee. ;-)

  2. #2 Rev Matt
    September 24, 2009

    “Flying from San Francisco to LA is almost surely less carbon-efficient than driving, and probably takes no less time.”

    It’s something like 450 miles. I used to drive it and fly it frequently in college and post college. It’s an hour or so minute flight so including an hour at each end (usually less but I’m being pessimistic) maybe three hours. Going the speed limit you’re talking at least a six hour drive. Assuming no stops.

    Outside of the Northeast train travel is more broken than air travel. I look into it every time I travel back to the West Coast. It would take THREE DAYS to take the train from St Louis to San Francisco. And cost more than twice as much as flying. I could drive it in two days and for a lot cheaper which makes me question the existence of passenger rail outside the Northeast.

    I understand the goal of reducing carbon footprint, but the reality is most families (hell, most individuals) don’t have the luxury of adding 2-3 days of travel time at each end of their vacation and paying significantly more to do so.

  3. #3 Josh Rosenau
    September 24, 2009

    Rev. Matt: I may have been overgenerous in my estimate of the travel time between SF and LA, though I’ve heard tales of people doing it in 4-5 hours (scary, I know). If traffic is bad, it could take that long to get door-to-door from SF to LA. And yeah, the train system sucks. California passed a bond initiative to build high speed rail from SF to San Diego, a system that could readily extend up to Vancouver and down at least to Tijuana, with talk of a line running from LA to Las Vegas. Maybe extend that on to Salt Lake City, Denver, and KC, where it could hook up with a regional high speed network in the Midwest. The East Coast is a natural for high speed rail, except that the railroad rights of way are all over-subscribed, so it’d be tricky to get land for HSR. But I’m optimistic that we’ll have an HSR network before long.

    None of this is to suggest that people ought to drive from St. Louis to SF just to save on carbon emissions. The real killer is a short hop from St. Louis to Memphis.

  4. #4 Jim Thomerson
    September 24, 2009

    I see a fairly good correlation between airline success and failure to charge baggage fees.

  5. #5 Rev Matt
    September 25, 2009

    Agreed, sub 4-5 hour drives it definitely makes more sense to drive than to fly. Over that it’s up for debate.

    I’d love to see a high speed rail from the West Coast to the Midwest, but it would still have to be priced competitively. The prices are actually a lot better now than it was a few years ago, when it routinely cost more than 4x as much to take the train than the plane. Now it’s only twice as expensive to take 9x as long to get there.

  6. #6 Bill
    September 25, 2009

    Rev Matt mentioned taking a train between St. Louis and San Francisco. As it happens, I’ll be doing something very much like that three weeks from now.

    Actually, the first and last legs will be driving between St. Louis and Galesburg, IL…about 200 mi., all interstate. The Galesburg station has free long-term parking and is served by both of the east-west long-distance trains I’ll be using.

    In Galesburg, I’ll catch the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles, then the Coast Starlight to San José, then the Highway 17 bus to Santa Cruz where I’ll be attending a couple of weeks of meetings. I’ll leave work around noon on Friday and be in my hotel room shortly before midnight on Sunday (2-1/2 days, not 3).

    That route won’t work eastbound because I’d have to spend the night in Los Angeles; so going home, I’ll take the bus back to San José, a Capitol Corridor train to Emeryville, then the California Zephyr to Galesburg. That would also be about 2-1/2 days, including the drive back to St. Louis, except that I’ll be stopping off in Grand Junction, CO for a couple of days to visit some relatives whom I haven’t seen in a while.

    Total fare is $1,389.15 in the sleeper, which includes all meals in the diner, on all three long-distance trains. $611.00 of that is the extra fare for the sleeper on the Chief…when I booked several months ago, some tour operator was hoarding rooms and I had to take the next-to-highest fare. Compare Amtrak sleeper fares to flying first-class, not coach.

  7. #7 Vince Whirlwind
    September 29, 2009

    I’m with Russell – the price of a ticket should be based on the total weight you bring onto the plane.
    Simple and fair.

  8. #8 Erika
    October 21, 2009

    I have been living bewteen two countries, France and the United States, for years now. When I travel, I always stay for several months. I only see my family once a year so for me it’s important to stay a while. It’s impossible for me to pack all of the things necessary for three months or more into a 23kg suitcase. I need my two bags! I would understand completely if it’s a trip for pleasure, just a vacation for a couple of weeks. I’d have no problem paying an extra $50 if I want to bring more. For those that officially live divided between countries, it’s not exactly fair. It’s already hard enough for me to find the time and money to return to see my family once a year. Now I have to worry if I need to buy a supplement wardrobe and gifts at my destination each Christmas time?

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