Home for the holidays - with some costly baggage

One of the most loathed aspects of holiday air travel - paying to check bags - is at the center of a growing debate that does not look to be resolved soon.

Travelers who could otherwise be spending $50 on an extra gift must instead use it to buy their Samsonite a round-trip ticket in the bowels of an airplane.

The anger over increasing fees has gained the attention of Washington, pitting some members of Congress against the airline industry.

To avoid the fees, passengers have taken creative steps, such as wearing multiple layers of clothes while filling baggy jacket pockets with extra socks and underwear.

Tyler Wichmann, 27, worked out a deal with his sister to carry on some gifts on his flight to New York, where they're spending the holiday. He flies out of Charlotte today, determined not to check a bag.

"At some point, I feel like it's time to take a stand," the Charlotte attorney said. "That flight is not cheap. And we've become accustomed that it comes with certain things. It comes with a drink, a snack, and one of those things is a checked bag."

US Airways and many other airlines introduced baggage fees in 2008. US Airways CEO Doug Parker said earlier this year that revenue from fees is critical to airlines. He said rising fuel prices and a bad economy have made fees necessary for survival.

Some airlines, including US Airways, have returned to profitability, assisted by the new fees.

According to the Department of Transportation, airlines charged $3.4 billion for baggage fees last year. Earlier this year, Congress considered taxing airline baggage fees. According to the Government Accountability Office, those taxes could have added $240 million to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which helps pay for airport construction, traffic control systems and safety inspections. But the proposal was not added to an aviation reauthorization bill.

Travelers flying domestically on US Airways will be asked to pay $25 to check a first bag, $35 for a second bag. Delta and American have similar rates.

Jet Blue offers the first bag for free and a second for $35. As attested by their popular commercials, Southwest is one of the few airlines where "bags fly free." At least the first two fly free; a third checked bag costs $50.

"I try to use Southwest as much as possible, just because of the lack of baggage fees," said Mark Sheldon, a youth sports coordinator in Kansas City.

U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell joined other federal lawmakers last week to press airlines to scale back their baggage fees. Kissell, a Democrat who represents Charlotte and Concord, proposed legislation that would allow travelers to check one free bag on each flight. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., introduced a similar bill in the Senate. To date, no Republicans support either bill.

Earlier this year, Kissell introduced an amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act to prevent airlines from charging additional baggage fees to soldiers leaving or returning from deployment. Kissell had received calls from North Carolina soldiers based at Fort Bragg, who complained of paying exorbitant baggage fees when they returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. The amendment was included in the final bill that passed this month.

His new bill, Kissell said, is an extension of that effort.

"We as taxpayers spend a lot of money to secure air travel and make it possible for the airlines to operate," Kissell said. "I think it is asking very little back to allow passengers to check a bag without added cost."

Not only must passengers pay for their bag's flight, but taxpayers get hit again because of the extra carry-on luggage that must be checked. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress this year that added screening for those additional bags has cost the Transportation Security Administration $260 million a year.

The airline industry isn't backing down. Rather than having Congress limit choice and regulate what airlines can offer to passengers, regulators should focus on the efficiency of the airport checkpoint, according to the Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents major airlines, such as US Airways, American and Delta.

"You can't assume that all passengers are looking for the same services or want to pay for the same services," said association spokesman Steve Lott. "If you're charging everybody for that first bag, that means you're charging many people for a service they don't want and shouldn't pay for."

Delta officials didn't respond to requests for comment. US Airways referred calls to the Air Transport Association.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer