Too much carry-on luggage toted by other passengers recently emerged as the No. 1 complaint of air travelers, and with the Thanksgiving travel crush under way, Congress might consider limiting the bag fees that airlines can charge.
Those per-bag fees that airlines have been charging for checked luggage have led travelers to push the carry-on limits, slowing down security checkpoints and creating a mad scramble to lay claim to overhead bins once people board.
"Many airlines consider checking a bag not to be a right, but a privilege — and one with a hefty fee attached," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has introduced legislation that would "guarantee passengers one checked bag without the financial burden of paying a fee, or the headache of trying to fit everything into a carry-on."
The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., would allow passengers to check one bag for free and prohibit fees for regular-size carry-on bags. It also requires that airlines tell passengers about restrictions on size, weight and number of bags before they arrive at the airport. And it mandates that airlines make public their fees for all types of baggage and for preferred seating.
"Rather than limit choice and regulate what airlines can or cannot offer to passengers, regulators should continue working on the efficiency of the airport checkpoint," said Steve Lott, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group. "Service choices in the airline industry are not new. Airlines began offering customers the option to pay for services they value, including checking a bag, more than three years ago."
Lott said fewer than one in four passengers pays a checked-luggage fee.
Airlines began charging for luggage when rising fuel prices and the sour economy took a bite out of their already slender profits. The bag fees drew the ire of some passengers, and Southwest Airlines has capitalized on that frustration with advertising campaigns saying it doesn't charge them. Only one U.S. carrier, Spirit Airlines, is known to have charged for carry-on bags.
Passengers also were annoyed by fellow travelers who try to carry on everything they have, with more than two-thirds telling the U.S. Travel Association in a survey that they were peeved with "people who bring too many carry-on bags through the security checkpoint."
Roger Dow, the association's president, in March told a Senate committee led by Landrieu that the checked-bag fees encouraged carry-ons. At the same hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified that the cost of security screening has increased as the number of checked bags has decreased by 20 percent.
"When you have to pay to check a bag, it increases carry-on luggage, and that means there is more to inspect at the gate and so forth for passengers to get on planes," Napolitano said during a meeting of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.
"It's getting to the point where it's ridiculous," said Nick Peters, a Washington executive who regularly flies to his former home in California. "If you don't get on the airplane first . . . there's no room in the overhead."
He called Landrieu's proposal to restrict what airlines can charge a great idea because it could reduce carry-ons, but he cautioned that it won't save travelers money.
"The airlines are just going to find some other way to make it up by charging us for something else," Peters said.
Landrieu said that in 2008-09, airlines collected $3.9 billion in checked-luggage fees.
The airline industry has painted a bleak profit picture for 2012, after calculating its losses in the past decade at $25 billion. Domestic and foreign carriers will transport about 7.6 million people next year, but their profit margin is projected at less than 1 percent, Tony Tyler, chief of the International Air Transport Association, said this month.