Spirit Airlines’ carry on baggage fee: Smart. But it doesn’t go far enough.

Spirit Airlines has very wisely instituted a carry on baggage fee. It caused all kinds of commotion and media coverage and even got politicians scrambling to impose misdirected punitive legistlation.

But the truth is that the fee is both smart business and good for consumers. If you don’t like it, fly another airline. Better yet, if you have a few hundred million dollars to lose, start your own airline and make (sorry, lose) money however you see fit.

The real problem is that the fee doesn’t go far enough.

Airline deregulation was passed in 1978. ‘member? The point was to stop meddling in the free market and let airlines set their prices and services in a way they chose. Consumers would either embrace or reject those decisions. Airlines could adapt, or not.

Since then, it is estimated that increased competition has caused inflation-adjusted fares to decline 30%-40%. And, oh yeah, many huge carriers went out of business (Eastern, PanAm, TWA, many others), and the combined industry has lost about $60B since that time. This remains a hugely unprofitable industry.

Most proponents of the carry-on baggage fee cite the overcrowded overhead space and bumbling passengers with too much stuff as a reason they support the fee. I’m absolutely with them on those issues, but this is not my primary argument.

Weight, wherever it comes from – passengers, checked bags, carry on bags, fuel, the aircraft itself – uses fuel and costs the airlines money. That’s why air cargo, from a FedEx box to a pallet of time-sensitive merchandise, is charged by weight (and usually secondarily by volume). Nobody thinks it odd to pay more to air ship a 30 pound package instead of a 2 ounce envelope. Yet commercial passenger travel defies that logic.

So here’s my plan: include a fixed weight allowance, let’s say 175 pounds, for every ticketed passenger. That includes your body weight. Beyond that, you pay for the extra weight you use, no matter where you carry it.

If you’ve ever flown in a helicopter or tiny commercial prop plane, you may be familiar with this procedure. Passengers step on a scale and their weight is logged in addition to the weight of their luggage. This is used to ensure that the aircraft doesn’t exceed its safe operating load, but the measure could just as easily be used to adjust ticket prices.

Politicians say that charging for carry on bags isn’t family friendly. (the logic is that families with young children have lots of essential stuff that needs to be brought on board). But my plan is actually incredibly family friendly. Think about it: for every ticketed minor likely to weigh well under 175 pounds, the parents can load up baggage (as carry ons or checked luggage) as they see fit.

Here’s how the convoluted system works today: two passengers book the same $200 one-way ticket at the same time. Passenger one weighs 150 pounds, checks a 30 pound bag (for $25), and ends up paying $225 ($1.25/pound). Passenger two weighs 225 pounds and carries on two 20 pound bags. Net price: $.75/pound, or 40% cheaper than passenger one. Plus, passenger 2 is contributing to slower boarding, slower exiting, and clogged overhead bins, while passenger 1 is not. Is this fair?

Here’s an additional advantage to this approach: if airlines knew exactly how much weight was in the passenger cabin, they could efficiently pack more cargo underneath, since they wouldn’t be making worst-case assumptions about how much each person (and all their accompanying carry-on baggage) weighs. Over time, that means lower ticket prices, a healthier industry, and likely both.

New York’s Senator Schumer was an activist on this issue. I’m glad to have him as a NY senator and even met him at a fundraiser once. But Senator Schumer, I wish you would please stay out of my free market and please stay out of the business of our country’s pathetically unprofitable commercial airlines.

There’s been some suprising support for this misguided meddling in the market, including from a publication I normally respect, The Economist. Apparently, many people feel it’s a right to carry whatever they want onto a private airline. Would they prefer a regulated industry again with 30-40% higher ticket prices in order to preserve that ‘right?’

Then again, there’s been some support for Spirit’s initiative, too.

Let’s get real: Weighing passengers themselves (and everything they carry) is logistically unfeasible and would cause a consumer uproar. But it’s one of the fairest ways to deal with this mess. Compared to that, the very wise practice of charging people to carry on bulky baggage that doesn’t fit under the seat should seem like peanuts.

Not that you’re likely to get the peanuts for free anymore, either.

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