By Christopher Elliott

It's been more than two years since most major airlines "unbundled" their fares and began charging passengers for the first checked bag. And although air travelers are now paying more for their luggage than ever -- $2.7 billion last year, compared with just $1.1 billion in 2008 -- they are deeply unhappy about it, according to a new poll.

A survey of more than 1,000 travelers by the Consumer Travel Alliance suggests air travelers are more upset about the checked luggage charges than any other airline fee. Asked what they missed the most about air travel, 56 percent said it was the ability to check their first bag without paying extra. Roughly 20 percent said they missed meals, and slightly fewer -- 19 percent -- missed the ability to make a confirmed seat reservation. About 5 percent of respondents missed the free pillows and blankets.

"It's almost impossible for the casual traveler to go without luggage, or even the road warriors who have to stay over several nights," says Robin Edelston, a frequent traveler from Cos Cob, Conn. "And charging for checked luggage encourages people to cram stuff into the overhead bins when the airlines should be encouraging people to stow it in cargo."

Airlines have used these and other surcharges, such as ticket change fees, to return to profitability. Last week, for example, US Airways president Scott Kirby said his airline expects to bring in $500 million in so-called "ancillary" fees this year, recording a net profit of between $450 million to $475 million.

"A la carte revenues represent 100 percent of that profitability," he said.

Passengers know the fees are an important source of revenue. But it doesn't seem to matter.

"It's good for the airlines because they are picking up a lot of money in fees," says Tab Stone, a pediatrician from Los Angeles. "It's like the words in the old Tom Lehrer song, 'Now there is a fee, for what she used to give away for free.' But they're terrible for the passengers who are screwed over by having to pay for everything separately and having differing rules and fees for every airline and waivers of some fees for paying with the right credit card or being a higher-level frequent flier, or flying in a slightly higher class of service or who knows what else."

One reason luggage fees are so problematic to airline passengers is that there's a perception the fees are being charged in a dishonest way. When the fees were added, airlines suggested the change would be a temporary measure to offset higher fuel prices. But the fees stayed, even when fuel costs dropped.

Travelers are used to their bags flying with them at no additional cost, and that becomes a challenge when they're fare shopping.

"The problem is, there's no comparison point," says Mitchell Weinstock, an air traveler from San Jose, Calif. "As long as the airlines never present what the full ticket cost is at the time of sale, compared to the unbundled price, it is nothing more than a unsubstantiated claim that these parts would add up to the whole bundled price, or the bundled price may have been a better deal. They can change the price on any of the elements and you have no idea if they are telling you anything useful."

A proposed federal regulation would change that. The government is considering a requirement that airlines quote a "full" fare, including all mandatory charges, as well as that full fare plus the cost of baggage charges that traditionally have been included in the price of the ticket. If the rule is put into effect early next year, it might effectively end flier's frustration with baggage fees.

One thing the federal government can't regulate, because it is impossible to quantify, is airline service. Beyond baggage problems, airline service was what air travelers say they missed more than anything.

"I miss the courtesy and helpfulness of the airline staff," says Lee Bice, an IT director from Tampa. "Where once travel was a pleasure, it feels like a minefield. Too many attendants give off an air of irritation and I feel we may be imposing on them."

Christine Austin, a bookkeeper from Louisville, Ky., says so much has been removed from the air travel experience that she dreads getting on a plane.

"All the joy and thrill of flying has been sucked out of the experience," she says. "Every part of flying has become a hassle from making the reservation, to packing, to getting through security, to cattle herding onto the plane, having to stay in your seat virtually the entire time, and hope your bags have made it to your destination."

Travelers say it can't continue like this.

"The devious ways of hiding the true cost of flying is not acceptable in any other industry," says Bob Rosenberg, a salesman from New Fairfield, Conn., adding that a government crackdown is inevitable, at some point.

"I think that the airlines are the worst-managed industry that we have in America," he adds.


Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine.



Travel | Passengers Say They Miss Luggage-Inclusive Airfares the Most