Are the airlines colluding to force you to pay more?

A Washington, D.C. law firm heard something it didn't like in a phone call AirTran made to analysts last October. When someone asked if the airline planned to institute luggage fees, the CEO said "we would strongly consider it," if Delta did it first. Well, Delta went and did it. Then AirTran joined in.

The lawsuit, filed in Atlanta where both AirTran and Delta have their hubs, alleges that the CEO's public comments were a de facto "invitation to collude," which means they could have served as a sign to Delta that it could feel free to raise its prices and that it if it did, it wouldn't stand alone in the marketplace. It's against the law for companies to do stuff like that, and there have been anti-trust laws since the days of the railroad barons to ensure it doesn't happen, for the good of the consumer.

AirTran is claiming it "reached an independent conclusion on the decision to implement bag fees." I can't help but notice that isn't the same thing as saying it didn't send a signal to its rivals.

The airlines certainly have a long, sordid history of looking at each other for their pricing cues, with consumers coming out as the usual loser.

Usually, it's with airfare. When prices go up, it's often a case of "monkey see, monkey do," as one airline tests a new idea and the others decide to pile on shortly thereafter. Such leader-chasing in the airfare arena has been permitted, mostly because it's for a product that already exists and the price changes could be argued to be reflections of changes in the cost of delivering that product.

But if the airlines have intentionally followed each other for luggage fees, a new product, then such sideways glances and emulation would be a lot harder to defend.

It could be that the airlines are so used to looking to each other for airfare pricing cues that they forgot to conceal their spinelessness in this instance, and AirTran and Delta now risk paying a price for that. Join the club. We've been paying for the airlines' pack mentality for years.

Right now, Southwest is the only airline among America's top seven that doesn't charge for the first checked bag. JetBlue, outside of the top seven, is another.
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