Kunkle: Checked bags should be free

Fredrick Kunkle

The airlines could do something today that might ease your wait in airport security checkpoint lines tomorrow: Stop charging fees for checked baggage.

Up until now, the wrath of air travelers has been focused on the Transportation Security Administration, and not without reason. Government watchdogs have documented several critical lapses at the TSA in recent years, such as undercover operatives managing to make it through checkpoints with illegal weapons and phony bombs and inadequate vetting of aviation employees before issuing them security credentials.

Members of Congress have accused the agency of not adequately planning for the crush of travelers this spring, despite ample warning that record numbers of people would be flying.

But TSA also has a tough job. In recent years, Congress also has cut its budget while the number of air travelers has increased. TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, who took over less than a year ago, has made tightening security a priority. And they’re trying to ease the crunch: earlier this month, the TSA announced a 10-point plan to reduce wait times by increasing staff and redeploying officers.

The agency plans to add 768 new officers by June 15. But consider this: even without considering attrition – which runs about 23 percent, Neffenger has said – the addition of 768 new officers to a force of about 43,000 security officers amounts to a staffing boost of less than 2 percent. Airlines for America (A4A), the industry trade group, said last week that based on first quarter data, the volume of passengers is expected to exceed the previous all-time high set in 2015 by 4 percent.

That suggests that no matter what the TSA does right now, if you’re planning to travel this summer, you might as well bring a copy of War and Peace to keep you company in the security line.

So now it’s airline industry’s turn to step up. A good start would be going cold turkey on checked baggage fees. As far back in 2010, The Washington Post profiled a traveler, when told what it would cost to check her suitcase, instead ran into a store at Reagan National Airport, bought a US$6 nylon bag, stuffed everything she could into it from her suitcase, put other stuff in a Whole Foods tote, and then called her mother to pick up the bag. Does anyone seriously doubt that people would use carry-on wheelbarrows if they could just to avoid paying to stow a suitcase?

Earlier this month, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., urged the airlines to stop charging baggage fees this summer because of the crazy lines at airports. The senators, in an open letter, cited the TSA in saying that baggage fees may drive an additional 27 percent of baggage toward passenger checkpoints – and they mean those big ol’ lumbering bags on wheels that flight attendants and passengers have to wrestle into overhead bins just before takeoff.

The senators also said, citing an investigation by the members of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, that the airlines jacked those fees up by 67 percent from 2009 to 2014. The senators also noted that airlines began imposing those fees in 2007 as fuel prices peaked. And yet the fees have remained despite a freefall in the price of oil.

“You can take some action right away,” the senators’ May 10 letter says. “One simple solution – even if it is not a panacea – is well within your companies’ control: suspend bag fees for the summer.”

Why just this summer, by the way? Why not always? And, hey senators – why not pass a law to that effect, since the airlines are just about the only people who dispute that the fees have had the unintended consequence of driving people to almost any length to avoid paying them?

“Bag fees are not the cause of the excessive wait times we are seeing now,” A4A spokeswoman Jean Medina said. In an email, she said that Chicago Midway International Airports is predominantly served by an airline that does not charge baggage fees and yet it has been the site of very long lines. Having people check baggage, she said, will only exacerbate the current crisis, noting that thousands of pieces of baggage have been stranded, as happened this year in Miami and Phoenix. She also provided a chart based on TSA data that she said shows that the number of checked bags per passenger has not changed since 2010.

And she took a parting shot at Congress, too, noting that since a TSA fee was instituted in 2013, Congress has diverted US$13 billion of those funds over 10 years toward other spending instead of security.

“This is not a bag issue,” Medina writes. “The issue is this: TSA needs to properly align its manpower and resources with the need.”

In the meantime, she also said airlines have hired vendors to assist the TSA in a supporting role, such as by moving bins and staffing exit lines. A few days ago, American Airlines announced that it would spend US$4 million of its own money on contractors to help manage checkpoint lines and speed up screening.

All of which is very nice. But if the airlines really wanted to show how much they cared, they’d take away the baggage fees for checked luggage so that all you’d have to worry about is taking off your shoes.

Fredrick Kunkle runs the Tripping blog, writing about the experience of travel. © 2016, The Washington Post