Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Luggage Dance

It seems like airlines have done everything in their power to make travel more and more tedious. It wasn't too long ago that travelers got to check two bags for free, pillows and blankets were readily available on flights, and to get a exit row seat, all you had to do was ask. Those were some of the things taken away or modified with fees. Many airlines went on to drop free meals. Having eaten airplane food, I think we can agree that not much was lost there! Then things got worse. Fuel costs went up. The number of people traveling went down. So of course the answer is to make travel even more costly and more difficult for the consumer. I believe the pinnacle of this is the cost to check even a single bag everyone has to pay on most major airlines now. Not only is this an extra expense to deal with, it's causing a rather annoying scenario that I call the luggage dance.

Geek husband and I recently took a trip to his home city of New Orleans. Our luggage dance started before we even left for the airport. We were trying to figure out if we could both pack for a four day trip, in one suitcase. The airlines we were traveling on charges $15 per checked bag, each way. If we checked only one bag, we'd save $30. We had already decided that just using carry-ons would be too hectic. Both of us travel with our laptop computers. Trying to keep track of two computer bags and two small pieces of luggage in four different airports (1 connection each way) sounded like far too much of a hassle.

As we packed, it became apparent that everything would fit, but it might get a little tight. So then the question was: what if we buy a bunch of stuff while we're on vacation? The suitcase we used expanded with the flip of a zipper, but I knew from past experience that if I open up the expansion and pack it tight, it can weigh more than 50lbs. An overweight bag costs more than checking a second bag, so we'd be better off taking two if that happened. After much discussion we decided to go with one bag and to buy something cheap to throw clothes into if we needed a second one on the way back. We ended up only doing a little bit of shopping, so our one suitcase worked for the return trip just fine. However we spent far more time on packing than we ever would have prior to the $15 bag fee.

The luggage dance continued as we boarded the plane. More people than ever are using carry on bags, rather than paying the checked bag fees. I can't blame them. I would do the same in some cases. This means however that overhead compartment space is at a premium. Above our seats other passengers spent a good 15 minutes attempting to rearrange the luggage in the overhead compartment to fit someone's bag. In the process they took another passenger's bag out of the compartment (unbeknownst to the owner of the bag), and never put it back. Several minutes after they finished, another passenger held up a bag and asked who owned it, as it had randomly left by his seat. Neither that person nor the owner of the bag knew what had happened. And we must not forget the bag that almost got dropped on my husband's head in the middle of all of the commotion. I was quite displeased about that one.

Maybe I'm strange, but I find the luggage dance to be very annoying. The airlines have set up a scenario where passengers are going to try to jump through hoops to avoid paying baggage fees: packing fewer suitcases, trying to survive with just a carry-on, and finding a place for that carry-on once a person is on the plane. The flight attendants seem to understand the situation, yet attempt to stay away from it. Not one attendant came over to help the people who rearranged one compartment for 15 minutes. The hassle and the extra cost have people more frustrated with traveling than ever.

If I were an airlines, I would seriously consider revising that policy right about now. I have to wonder if a very modest price increase (say $5 per ticket) would compensate for the missed income. The good will towards travelers may be the real benefit though. I know that if I were looking for a plane ticket these days I'd choose a $15 more expensive flight over one with the same $15 baggage fee. I can't be the only person out there that feels that way, a smart airlines would take that into consideration right about now :)