Airline revenue in the bags

With travellers being stung by carriers for their luggage, Mark Juddery has some advice: lighten up.

On a recent flight to Auckland with Air New Zealand, I was surprised by a $75 "excess baggage" fee for a single 17-kilogram piece of luggage, something I had never previously needed to pay with that airline. The carrier changed its fee schedule in November. Had I included the luggage in my booking, I would have saved $50. Had I reduced my gear to one piece of hand luggage, I would have paid no extra fee.

While sympathetic, a travel industry representative suggests this is the way of the future. "Soon it will be normal for airlines to charge extra, even on long-haul flights," he says, "and I'm not just talking about budget airlines."

Spokespeople for Qantas (which allows international economy-class passengers to check one piece of luggage to a maximum of 23 kilograms; two pieces to a combined maximum of 23 kilograms if travelling to the US) and Virgin Australia (international economy class to 23 kilograms, but other charges may apply) say they have no plans to change their policies in the near future.

In the US, where most domestic carriers now charge checked baggage fees, airlines collected more than $US1.7 billion ($1.6 billion) in revenue in the first half of 2012. It's one more reason to pack light and avoid checking in baggage.

"I use carry-on only for a month's trip, which includes various climates," a librarian from San Francisco, Louise O'Dea, says. "My latest trip was to Ecuador and Peru, with temperatures from the very hot and humid to the very low 30s [minus 1 degree Celsius]. I carry a down coat, one pair of sturdy shoes, one pair of sandals, four slacks, a combination of button-down [tops] and T-shirts and one cashmere sweater ... I have travelled this way for years."

Soon, even such austerity on the part of airline passengers might not go unpunished.

American carriers Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air charge for carry-on luggage over a certain size. Spirit recently increased the price for checking in carry-on luggage at airport gates from $US45 to $US100. If booked online, however, Spirit's carry-on fee is $US35.

"Spirit offers our customers multiple opportunities to avoid this unnecessary [airport gate] fee and to save money," says its chief operating officer, Tony Lefebvre.

"By planning ahead and paying for bags before getting to the boarding gate, our customers are saving time at the airport and speeding up the boarding process."

Charging for carry-on luggage has since spread to Europe, with Hungarian low-cost airline Wizz Air charging €10 ($12.60) for most carry-on luggage. Before you say, "They'll never get away with it", note that the Ireland-based no-frills carrier Ryanair charges a fee for luggage (though not carry-on luggage, so far) and many other services. Ryanair is also one of the most profitable airlines.