Should Washington Meddle in Airline Fees?

Sen. Charles Schumer thinks so. But there are more effective ways of airline fee reform than limiting choice for travelers.

Would you prefer more choice regarding air travel costs or that Washington dictate what fees are fair? Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) opts for the latter. He called on airlines to promise not to charge fees for carry-on luggage. American, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, US Airways and JetBlue did so this week. This move is in response to Spirit announcing that it would begin charging fliers for luggage they store in the overhead compartment earlier this month. While many consumers likely have an adverse gut reaction to such apparent nickel-and-diming, is Schumer really looking to help travelers here or score some political points?

In fact, travelers may be better off through Spirit's approach. Carry-on fees should result in more discretion on consumer spending for flights, lower fares, and a smoother airport experience. Yet Schumer proposes a tax to punish airlines that charge fliers who bring their luggage into the cabin. It's hard to understand why this distinction matters.

Currently, many airlines charge fliers to check their baggage, but allow them to carry-on luggage at no additional charge. This results in customers trying to squeeze as much as possible in their suitcases intended for the overhead compartment. Longer security lines, lengthier boarding times, and delays follow. Yet similar treatment for both types of baggage would eliminate the carry-on incentive. So shouldn't Schumer and others in Washington be indifferent to how luggage is transported? Customers would certainly be better off in such a world.

Instead of just eliminating consumer choice, lawmakers might consider some real reforms to the luggage dilemma -- and could still score political points with fliers.

Better Disclosure

A politician should be troubled if constituents are being tricked into paying unanticipated fees by airlines. Reducing choice, by forcing all airlines to include luggage fees in ticket prices, is not the solution. A better alternative would be to require airlines to disclose all fees upfront. For example, for tickets sold online, airlines could be required to allow consumers to view a screen that shows all the fees they could be subject to and ask them to agree to those terms before purchase. That way, if travelers don't like the fees, they can choose another airline.

Fees by Weight

Washington could also require airlines to be indifferent as to how passengers fly with their luggage. Rather than fees distinguish by carry-on versus checking, wouldn't it be more sensible to discriminate by weight? After all, weight matters most. Heavier suitcases lead to more fuel spent. That leads to higher costs for airlines, additional natural resources consumed and more pollution emitted. Universal weight-based fees would encourage fliers to pack lighter and shield them from any unanticipated fee disparities from airline to airline.