More passengers paying baggage fees

Planning to fly during the last big weekend for summer travel? Pack light or be ready to pay more money.

New fees for checking bags – adopted several weeks ago by US Airways, Charlotte's dominant carrier – are now hitting the majority of customers who deposit duffels, suitcases and other luggage at ticket counters.

That means most Charlotte-area Labor Day travelers will pay at least $30 round-trip – on top of their ticket cost – and more if that suitcase is heavy or they have more bags.

Although US Airways, which operates almost 90 percent of flights in Charlotte, adopted the $15 first-bag fee July 9, passengers who bought tickets before then didn't have to pay. Also exempt from baggage fees are elite-status frequent fliers, first-class passengers, military personnel, international travelers and unaccompanied minors.

That still leaves more than 80 percent of travelers on an airline that carried nearly 66 million passengers last year. Of those customers, 7 out of 10 are now eligible for the checked-bag fees, said Michelle Mohr, a US Airways spokeswoman. By early October, it'll be 8 out of 10.

Gene and Suzann Smith of Charlotte didn't know about the bag-check fees when they arrived at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport for their Wednesday flight to Denver. The couple had bought their tickets early this month, and each had a bag to check, adding $30 to their travel bill.

“I thought the first bag was free,” said Suzann Smith, a retired daycare center manager.

“You can't afford this on retirement,” said Gene Smith, a former teacher.

To avoid fees for more bags, the couple last week shipped a box of clothes and other items to Colorado in advance of their 16-day trip. That cost about $45, they said, compared with US Airways' second-bag fee of $25 per passenger.

Now they face another $30 to check bags on their return trip.

“Unless I get a bigger box,” Suzann Smith said.

Part of “a la carte pricing”

Through the end of this year, US Airways expects about 55 percent of eligible passengers to check at least one bag, Mohr said, while fewer than 10 percent will check a second bag.

For his return flight to Nashville on Wednesday, Michael Browder had to pay $40 to check two bags. “That's $40 more than I'm paying on other airlines right now,” he said.

Yet it wasn't the first time that Browder, the head of a health-care company, had to pay baggage fees. That doesn't mean he's used to it, he said.

“‘Used to it' connotes acceptance,” he said. “Personally, I just wish they'd raise ticket prices instead of all these add-ons.”

Along with baggage fees, US Airways – a self-described leader in “a la carte pricing” – now charges passengers for other services once covered by ticket costs, such as all in-flight food and beverages and reservations for certain seats.

Faced with soaring fuel costs, the carrier also has dropped free pretzels from flights, as well as stripped planes of in-flight entertainment systems to reduce weight. Other major airlines also have added fees and cut freebies, but not to the extent of US Airways.

Mohr declined to release specific numbers but said the baggage-fee program “is proceeding in line with our expectations and working well.” Between those fees and others, she said, US Airways expects to raise as much as $500 million a year to help offset fuel costs – expected to be $2 billion higher this year than in 2007.

While some travelers understand those economic pressures, the new fees are still frustrating, especially when not all carriers charge them.

Frank Glowacki and Christina Ganzer flew on US Airways from Newark, N.J., to Charlotte Wednesday morning for a business trip. Both said they were surprised by the fee to check a first bag, which they normally check for free when flying on Continental Airlines.

And, Ganzer said, “they still give you free meals.”

For now.