Airline Bag Fees Could Add Up to Big Mess for Meetings

The recent fees imposed on checked baggage by revenue-starved airlines could push already strained meeting budgets—and planners' tempers—past the brink.

American Airlines was the pioneer with a $15 fee for checking in a first bag. That was matched shortly by US Airways and United Airlines, both of which announced $15 first-bag fees. Several airlines had previously announced charging $25 for checking in a second piece of luggage.

"I don't like being nickel and dimed," said Amy Spatrisano, principal with Meeting Strategies Worldwide, based in Portland, OR. "And to charge per bag will just cause people to bring their things onto planes, which already are jammed."

The frustration was evident among planners and industry professionals on MeetingNews' online community, MiForum. Upon American's unprecedented move, one planner suggested boycotting American, while others pondered whether the airlines' moves would mean more delays at service counters and troubles with an increase in overhead storage use for overpacked, carry-on luggage.

Meetings-wise, independent planner Carole Rosenblat surmised: "You've booked a program. The majority of your attendees are flying American, and all those people are going to expense back their luggage fees. It's a 2,000-person program with 70 percent of the attendees booked on American and one bag per person—that's an extra $21,000. If you have golf on your program, that's an extra $25 for each golf bag. Better add that into your budget."

Spirit Airlines is doing the major carriers five bucks better, charging $20 for the first checked bag. However, Southwest Airlines has said it will not go along with a first-bag fee.

American's bag fees will not be imposed on gold- and platinum-level AAdvantage frequent-flier members, which would seem to exempt many corporate business travelers. Also exempt will be full-fare coach passengers, business-class travelers, or passengers flying overseas.

There was no word on whether the fees will be imposed on travelers flying under corporate or group annual contracts; presumably those would be negotiable items. However, attendees flying to multi-day conferences likely would check several bags, a scenario that could impact sales and incentive meeting attendees.

"I expect people will be evaluating more closely why they're meeting, and who should be part of the event," said Spatrisano. "It's a question they should always have been asking, but now it's more important than ever to re-evaluate meetings."

Planner Mitchell Beer, president of Ottawa-based Conference Publishers Inc., used the situation as a rallying cry for his MiForum colleagues: "We can build transformative meetings, maximizing the educational and motivational impact of every unit of air travel we consume."

Originally published July 7, 2008