Washington erupts over airline carry-on fee

It looks like Spirit Airlines' plan for a new up to $45 fee to put luggage in overhead bins is backfiring.

No, it's not yet clear if any passengers are avoiding the airline. The fee doesn't start until Aug. 1. It is in where the fee is backfiring. The fee has infuriated some senators. It's also put some urgency into the U.S. Department of Transportation's plans to reexamine how airlines treat additional fees when advertising fares, especially fees likely to be charged most passengers.

Last week a group of seven senators led by Charles Schumer, (D-NY), introduced the Block Airlines' Gratuitous Fees Act. It would force any airline charging for carry on space to pay the same tax on the fee it pays on fares, a move the senators' hope would remove a big incentive for a separate charge.

"Airline passengers have always had the right to bring a carry-on bag without having to worry about getting nickel and dimed by an airline company," Schumer said in a statement. "This latest fee crosses the line and is a slap in the face to travelers."

Besides Schumer others sponsoring the legislation are Sens. Robert Menendez, (D-NJ)., Ben Cardin,( D-Md).; Frank Lautenberg, (D-NJ).; Blanche Lincoln, (D-Ark).; Amy Klobuchar, (D-Minn).; and Jeanne Shaheen, (D-NH).

The senators say that American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, Sun Country Airlines, United Airlines and US Air have agreed not to impose similar fees, and Schumer in a New York press conference today said he is placing calls to other airline CEOs asking they commit to not implementing the fee.

Separately Cardin and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., offered their own legislation to completely ban carry-on luggage fees. Worried about discount European carrier moves to impose the fee, Cardin in March had unsuccessfully tried to block American carriers from copying. After Spirit's announcement, he moved forward with legislation.

"I think Spirit Airlines action made the atmosphere a little better for this," said Sue Walitsky, a Cardin spokeswoman.

Then there's the Department of Transportation. It announced in December it would look this summer at fare advertising, denied boarding compensation, baggage fees and notice to passengers of flight delays.

The Spirit announcement and the complaints it brought – there were 13 complaints about baggage last week, four specifically about Spirit -- will likely now bring closer attention to the baggage fees.

The government requires fare ads to include "the entire price" for a trip, but in 2008 let airlines list charges for checked bags -- fees which not all passengers pay -- separately but prominently. The question now is whether it will go farther when most passengers are likely to pay the fee.

Bill Mosley, a department spokesman, said that the department will be watching Spirit.

"The department will ensure that Spirit provides adequate notice to consumers of its baggage fees under its existing authority to prohibit unfair and deceptive practices," he said.

Spirit says the furor stems from misunderstandings it is working hard to correct.

"Spirit is reaching out to their offices to clarify information that has been misrepresented in the media," said Misty Pinson, a Spirit spokeswoman. "We are confident that once they see the complete story that they will agree that this is for the benefit of all customers."

She said the carry-on fee is part of a multiple step solution "to the industry's carry-on bag crisis."

"Spirit is even further lowering fares, lowering checked bag fees, giving customers the option to carry-on a bag for a fee that includes priority boarding, and personal items are still free," she said. "This will speed up security lines, speed up boarding and reduce delays. Everyone wins. This is a free market and consumers are free to make their own choices."

Aviation watchers say the problem for Spirit is that the Washington anger comes at a good time for consumers and not so good a time for airlines. Because both Congress and the Department of Transportation are in the midst of legislative and regulatory activities, it would be relatively easy for them to take action.

"Spirit started the fight, but it may affect anyone in the end of the day," said Jol A. Silversmith, a Washington aviation lawyer. "I would not want to be Spirit's counsel. I'm sure they are taking more than a few phone calls."

Kate Hanna, president of FlyerRights.org, noted the fee comes as the Obama administration takes a more aggressive focus in regulating the airline industry.

"Right now they are very passenger-oriented," she said, citing recent decisions to require passengers get a chance to deplane after a long ground holds. "If Congress won't get this done, there will be enough public outcry that President Obama will tell the department to [block] these fees."
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