Sunday, July 24, 2022

Should airlines make baggage check fees consistent?

Like many other people, I had put off traveling by airplane during the pandemic for as long as I could. The idea of long lines at the airport and cramped seats never had much appeal to me, but even less so when various strains of COVID-19 were being spread. After more than two years with my feet planted firmly on the ground, however, I traveled from Boston to Denver last weekend to visit my oldest grandson and his wife, who are stationed near there.

Ticket prices are higher than before, check-in processes remain byzantine, and airport lines as joyous as ever. But a question about the right thing arose concerning checked baggage from fellow passengers sitting at the gate waiting to board.

A public address went out announcing that the plane was full (oh joy) and that anyone who wished to check their carry-on baggage could bring it to the desk and check it for free. “I paid $35 for each bag I checked ahead of time,” a passenger seated next to me in the waiting area said. “How is that fair that I paid to check my baggage and now they’re letting others check it for free?” A discussion ensued about what would keep prospective travelers from bringing their bags with them to the gate rather than check them ahead of time to avoid the baggage fee.

Different airlines have different policies and different fees for checked bags. (We were flying on United.) A traveler could try to game the system and bring his baggage to the airport to try to get it checked for free rather than pay ahead of time, but since airlines are inconsistent in making such offers, he runs the risk that no such offer to check it at the gate will be made. On our return flight, for example, no such offer was made on an equally full flight. Airlines also run the risk of incentivizing passengers to try to drag more carry-on luggage onto the plane to avoid paying bag fees.

Is it fair that airlines charge some passengers for the bag check service and not others? No. Is it legal? More than likely it’s as legal as different passengers paying different amounts for the same seat depending on when they booked and through what site or service.

The right thing ultimately is for airlines to try to make their baggage-checking policies as clear as possible before passengers head to the airport. If there’s a chance that baggage-checking fees might be waived at the gate or if passengers might be charged extra for trying to bring a bag that’s too large onto the flight, airlines should make that clear. Some passengers might always be willing to risk having to lug their bags around in hopes that they can get their bags checked for free at the gate. As long as they know and accept that risk, they’ve done nothing wrong.

Fewer passengers did seem to check their bags so our wait for ours at the baggage claim area was shorter than I remember it being. Waiting for passengers to find and remove their bags from overhead compartments made the wait getting off of the plane longer.

While the inconsistency in charging for checked bags might be unfair, the visit with our grandson and his wife remained priceless.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.


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