Thursday, May 22, 2008

American's Baggage

On the matter of American Airlines charging for every checked bag, it's not the extra 15 bucks that bugs me, it's the principal of the thing. And yes, I meant to spell principal that way.

By many accounts, Gerard Arpey, the CEO of American, or some of his top minions, settled impulsively on the imposition of a new $15 fee on the first checked bag shortly before yesterday's annual stockholders' meeting.

"This was not thought through," an American insider told me. "It was asinine, and the reaction in house and out shows just how ill-conceived it was."

Well, they do need the dough. I do not believe it is generally understood just how dire the circumstances are for the major airlines. And their financial crisis is becoming our national transportation crisis.

But why couldn't American just raise fares by $15, rather than add a bag fee that will create logistical complications that, evidently, no one in charge at American has planned for yet.

My take on it: Passengers, as I have said, are pushing back finally against the drumbeat of fare hikes that the network airlines have imposed, in remarkable lockstep, all year. The May operating results will show a clear drop in demand, following the first small drop in April.

As an option, fare hikes are losing traction. And the major airlines are now desperate. They can't shrink the domestic system fast enough to match the falloff in demand.

But why is American's $15 bag fee such a mistake?

Simple logistics. When the airlines all imposed a $25 fee on a second checked bag earlier this spring (though those fees are only just now taking effect in some cases), not that many people were affected because not that many people check two bags.

But lots of people check a single bag, especially in the summer.

Here's where the logistics become impossible.

---Who's going to actually collect that $15? The skycaps at the curb? The clerks at the ticket counters? How much longer will it take to process each checked bag now, including making change?

---On board the airplane, won't the battle for space in the overhead bins just get worse as more people opt to cram that carry-on more full? And haven't the flight attendants been asked to do enough already? For the flight attendants, isn't this just one more brick on the load?

---Assuming x-number of passengers will opt not to check a bag, won't that put more pressure on the airport security checkpoints, where things have been running pretty smoothly for a good while now? Do all those millions of tubes of toothpaste and bottles of shampoo that used to get stashed in a checked bag now start turning up ringing the alarms at the checkpoints?

Just asking.


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