NEWS

Checked-bag fees may heighten carry-on chaos

09/30/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 11/29/2014 05:59 EST
They call out your row number and you finally get to board the plane. But before you can take a seat, you must fight through a crowded cabin to find room for your carry-on bags. You desperately open one overhead bin after another, only to discover they’re already jam-packed with winter coats, knapsacks and suitcases that sometimes look suspiciously larger than the limit.

If there’s not enough room, some bags — maybe yours — are sent to cargo, running the risk of a flight delay.

Now, predict experts, carry-on chaos is about to go sky-high because some passengers will lug even more on-board to avoid paying the new fees for checked baggage.  

“Let's face it, we'll push the envelope rather than pay the additional charges," said Candace Pyette just before she checked her suitcase at Toronto’s Pearson airport for a flight home to Sault Ste. Marie.

Come Oct. 29, WestJet will charge passengers $25 for the first checked bag on its lowest economy fare flights within Canada and to the U.S. Air Canada will follow on Nov. 2, charging $25 for the first checked bag on economy class travel within Canada and to the Caribbean and Mexico. They are among the last carriers in North America to implement the fee, and both airlines estimate it will affect about 20 per cent of their travellers.

At Charlottetown’s airport, passenger Margaret Shaw said that once the fees kick in, she’ll be “very inclined” to pack only carry-on. She added, “It’s going to make it more uncomfortable for everybody.”

Pearson passenger Mike Goulart agreed: “For carry-on, it’s already stuffed as it is. Who knows what’s going to happen?”

Chaos forecast

Passengers already have reason to bring more luggage into the cabin owing to the slow creep of checked luggage fees. For example, in 2008, Air Canada introduced a $25 fee for a second checked bag and a $75 fee for oversized or overweight luggage for economy-class travel on domestic flights.

Air Canada service agent and union rep Sheila Fardy notes that if a flight is full, often there isn't enough overhead space: "You see all these people still standing up, walking up and down, lost with their bags.”

Agents tag carry-on that won’t fit and send it to cargo. Fardy, who works at Toronto's Pearson airport and often works at the gate, said this can cause delays and anger passengers: “It can be unpleasant. Ninety per cent of them don’t want to give up their bag.”

Recently, on a plane destined for Kingston, Jamaica, there was no room for about 25 carry-on bags, said Fardy. She and her colleagues scrambled to move them to cargo, causing a 25-minute delay.

More bags, more trouble?

Airline analyst Rick Erickson says airlines introduced the latest checked bag fees to improve their bottom line. But he predicts they’re about to encounter problems with more carry-on bags. “There’ll be inevitable delays of aircraft that will prove to be costly to the airline. And then there’s going to be frustration on the part of the passengers.”

There are also safety concerns. Pearson passenger Patti Wierzbicki said she saw a suitcase fall out of an overhead bin and hit a man in the head when she boarded a packed plane from Sault Ste. Marie to Toronto. “With more carry-on luggage, you’re going to see more congestion in the aisle, people trying to get those bags up there, and accidents happening,” she predicted.

Policing the sneaks

Some think travellers will try to sneak on bags that exceed the size and weight limits to avoid the new fees: “There's too many cases that are too large that are taken on board right now. So it's going to be even worse,” said Charlottetown passenger Jacqueline Foster.

Fardy believes Air Canada will push service agents to step up their crackdown on overstuffed carry-on. But she added it will be difficult because of limited staff and limited visibility at check-in: “A passenger's family can be around the corner holding the carry-on bags and we wouldn't know that.”

Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the airline already has policing procedures in place and most passengers respect the limits. “We will continue to monitor the situation and will further adjust if required.”

Fitzpatrick added that the company successfully introduced a first $25 checked bag fee for U.S. flights in 2011 “without adverse customer or operational impact.”

WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer told CBC “the implementation of any baggage fees does tend to result in a change in consumer behaviour.” But he added that, in the past, consumers learned to adjust.

And if they don’t adjust? In 2010, U.S. discount carrier, Spirit Airlines, introduced a fee for carry-on luggage to help decrease the amount being stuffed into overhead bins. Three American carriers now charge for carry-on bags. There’s no word yet if any Canadian airline is considering doing the same.

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