Just when it seemed airline customer service couldn't sink any lower, American Airlines stepped over a line that no other major carrier dared to cross.
The nation's largest airline said Wednesday that it would charge most passengers $15 to check their first bag — $30 round trip — starting next month.
"It's a ground-breaking change,'' said Joe Brancatelli, a veteran air travel columnist. Passengers will try to carry more and bigger bags on board, he said, slowing down security screening and delaying flights as they jam overhead bins.
American also announced plans to take as many as 85 jets out of its fleet by year's end. The carrier will reduce domestic flying by about 11 percent in the fourth quarter and cut an undisclosed number of employees at American and affiliate American Eagle.
Like other airlines, American is struggling with jet fuel prices that jumped 80 percent in the last year. All major carriers have raised fares and added a slew of fees for services they used to give customers for free.
"We must find ways to cover the cost of providing our services so that we can remain viable and have the resources to reinvest in our company,'' said Gerard Arpey, American's chief executive. Competitors didn't match the fee Wednesday but also didn't rule it out.
American will start charging for a single checked bag June 15. The fee applies to passengers with discounted coach seats on domestic flights. Anyone who bought a ticket before that date for later travel is exempt.
The fee also doesn't apply to first- and business-class tickets, travelers on international flights or elite-level frequent fliers. Strollers and car seats will be checked free for parents traveling with a child. The same goes for a wheelchair that is ''strictly for mobility purposes or required to make a living,'' the airline said.
Customers will still be allowed to carry on one bag, plus a personal item such as a purse or a laptop case. Airline experts predict the new fee will encourage travelers to bring more stuff aboard already packed planes.
Al Meridin of Port Charlotte checked two bags for his American flight to Trinidad from Tampa International on Wednesday, but said next time he'll stuff everything into a carry-on. "Why not try to beat the system?'' he asked. "Wouldn't you?"
A flood of carry-on bags will bog down screeners at security checkpoints and keep planes from leaving on time while crews make travelers check carry-ons that don't fit in overhead bins, predicts Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com.
"Bin space will be twice as full,'' he says "It's going to be hand-to-hand combat at the gates. It will hurt on-time departures and slow the (security) lines.''
The fees are being tacked on as passengers grow more restive over higher fares and more delayed and canceled flights.
A rash of new fees for traditionally free services started among deep discount airlines. Fort Lauderdale-based Spirit Airlines began charging for one checked bag last year ($10 for one bag online or $20 at the airport). Allegiant Air, which flies out of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International, has a long fee list, including an $11 "convenience fee'' to book a flight online and a $31.50 charge to buy a round-trip ticket through a reservations center.
Traditional airlines increasingly followed suit this year. In February, United imposed a $25 fee each way to check a second bag. One by one competitors matched, ending with American in late April. Now, carriers charge for exit row seats, first-in-line boarding and headphones.
"They're nickel-and-diming everyone,'' said Joan Rees, owner of Gone Again Travel in New Port Richey. "I think the public's going to complain, heavily. It's getting out of hand.''
Why not just raise fares? Because it's harder to compare prices between airlines if customers need to compare myriad add-on fees, says Seaney.
"It makes the cost of flying more opaque,'' he says. "It makes it harder to get an out-the-door price.''
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.