Continental ups luggage fees, but preserves the illusion of competitiveness

Continental Airlines is gasping for breath, so by golly, its customers will have to be as well.

It has announced the elimination of some 1,700 jobs, and at the same time, it's grasping for funds by hiking fees yet again.

If you fly on Continental after Aug. 19, you will now pay $20 for the first checked bag and $30 for the second, up $5 from its current fees.

Like United and U.S. Airways, Fee King of the Skies, recently did, it will charge you the current, lower prices if you're able to check your bags online ahead of time, but not everyone will be able to do that. Increasingly, people without computers, or tourists without access to them on their trips, are being penalized by the airlines.

Continental could just raise its airfares, of course, but it won't dare do that, because that would put it at a disadvantage among its competitors, some of whom are not bleeding their customers so badly after their airfare is purchased.

Instead, Continental is matching everyone else when it comes to the airfare price and salvaging its bottom line through back-end fees.

Why be competitive when you can just appear to be? When customers search for their airfares online, all the airlines will appear to have similar prices, but the ugly truth is revealed at the airport.

Right now, if you're checking a single bag on a round trip on Continental, United, or U.S. Airways, you might as well add $40 to the price quoted to you. If you're checking two bags, add $100 to the price you see. (AirTran, Delta, American, and most others still charge $15 for the first bag.)

Then again, Americans seem to have a short memory for the ways the airlines screw them. In our classic victim mentality, we seem to think there's nothing we can do about it, so we keep going back for more.

JetBlue and Southwest still don't charge to check bags (and guess what -- Southwest just posted a quarterly profit anyway), and that's all the more reason to favor them. They're truly competitive, and aren't just maintaining an illusion of competitiveness like Continental and its legacy brethren.
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