JetBlue begins charging for bags, adding more fees to your flight

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[FILE] A framegrab showing a busy JetBlue ticket counter.

(July 1, 2015) — Nobody likes paying airline bag fees. And for U.S. passengers, things are about to get worse.

Now that JetBlue started charging for bags on Tuesday, Southwest Airlines will be the only major U.S. airline not tacking on additional luggage fees.

All told, the major U.S. airlines made more than $2.6 billion in baggage fees in 2014, according to federal government figures. Those 2015 numbers will soon include JetBlue, which since its 1998 launch has included the cost of your first bag in the price of a ticket.

Ugh, those dreaded fees. As any frequent flier knows, airlines have been boosting revenue by adding a la carte fees for several years now. Some charge a fee to print out your boarding pass, while others demand a surcharge for premium coach seats that barely fit average-sized American men and women.

But it’s the baggage fees that seem to add up fastest. American Airlines started the trend by adding fees for checked bags in 2008. In 2014, Delta led the pack with more than $650 million in baggage fees, followed by United, U.S. Airways (now owned by American), Spirit, Alaska and Frontier — all charging a range of additional fees.

JetBlue’s Blue Fare fees range from $20 to $25 for a first checked bag, while the Blue Plus includes two bags. All passengers will pay $100 for a third checked bag.

For a domestic flight, many major U.S. airlines charge $25 for a passenger’s first checked bag and $35 for the second bag. A handful say on their websites that they charge $150 for the third checked bag and $200 for any additional pieces.

Frequent fliers and credit card holders get various exemptions from fees, depending on the benefits accorded their status level and cards — for an annual fee, of course.

The last holdout against bag fees

The major U.S. airlines are making millions charging fees for a variety of extras. So why doesn’t Southwest charge extra? Some of its shareholders hate that the airline supposedly leaves money on the table.

The Texas-based airline started by Herb Kelleher in 1967 isn’t just being nice, its officials say. The airline attracts customers because it doesn’t have fees, Southwest chief commercial officer Bob Jordan told CNN.

“If we were to add fees, particularly the bag and change fees, the loss of the revenue from customer defections would be higher than the fee revenue we’d gain,” Jordan said.

He points all those people shoving oversized bags into overhead bins, getting into arguments because they don’t want to pay to check their luggage. People bring too much luggage into the passenger cabins, and it can’t all fit.

“Checked bag fees definitely are causing logjams,” agrees Benet Wilson, who blogs at AviationQueen.com. “You’ve already paid hundreds for your fare and you have to shell out at least another $50 round trip — and that’s if your bag is not over 50 lbs. Space is tight and people are fighting for every inch of space.”

Your bags aren’t actually flying free

For all the love Southwest gets for its “two free bags policy,” your bags don’t actually fly free on Southwest or any other airline.

As Bankrate’s Brian Kelly says, Southwest’s costs to transport your bags are included in the price of your ticket– as they once were on other airlines. How else to pay the baggage checkers and handlers who help transport your bag? Or the gas for the extra baggage weight the planes must carry? Businesses that do too much for free are soon out of business.

Kelly notes that Southwest’s fares aren’t always the cheapest in every location. But travelers need to add in other airlines’ bag fees when comparing prices.

“It would not be smart for Southwest to get rid of free bags,” he said. “It’s too much a part of their identity.”

Will JetBlue’s strategy work?

JetBlue’s strategy is to make the cost of bags obvious.

“Regardless of fare all customers will enjoy the JetBlue amenities they have come to love, like free DIRECTV, SiriusXM satellite radio, free unlimited snacks and the most legroom in coach,” JetBlue spokesman Philip Stewart said.

It remains to be seen if JetBlue’s strategy will work against Southwest, which carried 134.5 million passengers last year, the most domestic passengers in the United States in 2014, according to federal government data. JetBlue came in seventh place, carrying 26.4 million passengers last year.

The airline also reported a record $1.1 billion in net income in 2014 — its best year ever, topping its previous record of $754 million in net income in 2013.

“To be the last airline standing not charging these incredibly annoying change fees?” said Jordan. “It’s a great place to be.”

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