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Domestic Greed Goes Global

Baggage fees spreading to international flights

Aug 26, 2009

Traveling to Europe this fall on American Airlines? Consider packing light.

The carrier will charge economy-cabin passengers $50 each way for a second piece of checked luggage to destinations there.

American joins others recently adding similar fees, a sign that the charges that have proliferated for domestic travel over the past year are starting to turn up on international flights as carriers search for new ways to make money.

The 10 largest U.S. airlines collected $566.3 million in baggage fees during the first quarter of 2009, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That's a fourfold increase from the year-earlier period, when checked-bag fees for flights within North America hadn't been widely adopted.

"I think we are just at the beginning of international fees," said Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst with Forrester Research Inc.

American's new fees will take effect for travel to Europe, India and the Caribbean purchased on or after Sept. 14. Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines, which it acquired last year, had added luggage fees on tickets booked to Europe on or after May 23.

Meanwhile, US Airways charges $15 for a first bag and $25 for a second piece of luggage on flights to Latin America. Continental Airlines charges passengers $25 for a second checked bag to the region.

The only major U.S. carrier not charging for checked luggage on overseas flights, United Airlines, is studying implementing the fees, said Robin Urbanski, a United spokeswoman.

Although passengers have grumbled about the baggage fees on domestic flights, the charges haven't changed travel patterns. So it's little wonder U.S. carriers are starting to look at international travel, which has largely remained a fee-free zone.

"Whoever thought that we would be buying food on planes?" said Peter Carideo, president of CRC Travel, a travel agency. "People have not kicked and screamed about it. They've just accepted it. No blankets? They've accepted it."

Airlines are moving to an a la carte system, where economy-cabin passengers pay only for the services they want. The charges don't apply to first- and business-class passengers or elite members of the carriers' frequent-flier plans.

Most U.S. carriers charge for alcoholic beverages on international flights. United is testing charging passengers for midflight snacks like Toblerone chocolate bars on select trans-Atlantic flights from San Francisco and Los Angeles. The carrier still provides dinner and breakfast for free.

United also has a travel-options page on its Web site that spells out some of the perks that passengers can purchase for their trip.

But U.S. airlines need to tread carefully with their international fees, analysts said. They don't want to alienate international alliance partners, which generally don't charge passengers for basic services, or risk losing travelers to overseas competitors that haven't cut back on frills.

American Airlines, for example, doesn't plan to charge passengers to check bags to Asia or South America, routes that remain "ultracompetitive," spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said. "We will continue to monitor the competition."

Eventually, experts predict, some airlines will follow the lead of Irish discounter Ryanair by creating no-frills seats for budget travelers, where just about anything aside from the oxygen in the cabin and restrooms will be available for a small fee.

This may not be a bad thing, Harteveldt said, provided that carriers are upfront with their marketing practices and don't overcharge coach passengers who want to buy tickets that include traditional amenities like meals and frequent-flier miles.

"The airlines realize that if they go too far, they only make themselves more vulnerable to having their business cannibalized by other airlines that provide better value or no-frills airlines that make no promises about service," he added.

Customers are finding creative ways to avoid the new international charges, said Tom Parsons, chief executive of, a discount-travel Web site. One way is to seek out flights that are marketed by European partners of U.S. carriers. Air France doesn't charge luggage fees for flights that it code-shares with Delta, its partner in the SkyTeam alliance, even if the flight is operated by Delta.

Family members traveling with elite frequent-fliers also avoid the new charges if they purchase their tickets together.

"Or the other thing you can do is just pack light," Parsons said.

Baggage fees spreading to international flights
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