Posted on Friday, 20-March-2009 at 23:01 GMT.
Related Categories: Service, Passenger Value

Now that many of us pay extra for the privilege of maybe getting our checked luggage back, should we have higher expectations for better baggage service? Here's a hint: If you can find an airline that states, in writing, that your baggage fee will be returned should your bag not arrive on time due to an error on its part, please let us know.

First it was sky-high fuel prices; then it was the economic downturn. Despite a drop in fuel prices and the elimination of unprofitable flights, airlines are still struggling as travel demand continues to plummet. In 2008, airline after airline began instituting ancillary fees for many of the things we used to expect with the price of our airline tickets. One of the most contentious fees was the charge for a first checked bag. Once airlines started collecting for checked baggage in greater numbers, the expectation was that baggage service would improve. After all, shouldn't the extra cost cover the extra care? Unfortunately, it seems that only we passengers tend to think that way.

Baggage handling has indeed improved slightly in North America primarily due to the fact that there are fewer flights, fewer passengers and fewer of those flyers checking bags. However, stories of theft by airline insiders, crooks working in tandem, security personnel and outsourced baggage handlers, have weakened what little confidence remains in the system. Worldwide, there has been an uptick in the number of mishandled or lost bags, according to the Air Transport Users Council (AUC). The statistics can be tricky since the U.S. numbers compare 2008 to 2007 and the global numbers compare performance in 2007 to prior years. The report does commend a few airlines that are addressing their baggage handling performance but they contend that many airlines are quick to put the burden of risk on the passenger. The AUC found that low-cost carriers with point-to-point service performed better in terms of handling baggage than legacy carriers but they received poor marks when it came to paying fair compensation for delayed, damaged, or lost baggage. Just think: you may have paid for the privilege of never seeing your luggage again!

No matter which numbers you follow, some trends indicate that your baggage may become a new service commodity. If something you used to get for free now costs money, can you be enticed to do something extra to get it for free again? Some airlines hope so. Air Canada's latest promotion offers its free baggage allowance on all its economy fares, even the very lowest ones that previously required payment for checked baggage. Air France has unveiled its premium economy class that rewards passengers with a higher bag weight allowance than standard economy customers. As with most legacy carriers with heavy international routes, Air France has maintained a free baggage allowance based on weight, fare and class of service. Regardless of the method for calculating how your bags can fly for free, carriers grant more leeway to customers with elite status. Airlines want to keep their most loyal customers and will likely tinker with the free baggage allowance as an incentive for others to attain such status. For some airlines that always offered a free baggage allowance, marketing this fact with great zeal is the plan. Southwest Airlines' no-fee campaign is one clear example but many experts wonder how long this freedom from fees will last before the economic reality hits the Southwests of the world with a vengeance.

There is no doubt that baggage fees are netting some airlines a handsome sum of money, but the dropping demand for air travel has made many of them nervous again. Not only will they cling to any new fees for as long as they can, they might have to give up some fees to lure passengers back. Whatever happens, passengers will still cross their fingers when checking bags, hoping they will not wind up in the massive pool of mishandled luggage. Maybe airlines could widely implement RFID technology; or perhaps conduct true bag tag matches at the claim areas of all airports they fly to; or maybe, just maybe, an airline will take the lead and confidently offer a true baggage arrival guarantee. Is this just passenger-think again?
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