So how's it going over at American in the post-free-checked-bag era? I interviewed American spokesperson Tim Smith to get the inside scoop.
But first, some background: It was a time-honored tradition among many an experienced traveler—never check luggage, even if you're over the carry-on bag limit. After all, crossing your fingers and heading for the gate usually paid off. Nine times out of ten, you'd get away with sneaking an extra bag or two beyond the carrier's carry-on limits. If you didn't, the worst was that you'd be forced to gate-check your extra or oversized bag. That is, if you couldn't squeeze it into the overhead compartment. And the benefit of gate-checking bags could be substantial: A decrease in the chance of loss or delay, delivery to the jet-way shortly after landing, and no time-consuming waits in crowded claim areas.
The luggage police
Now passengers on American Airlines have yet another incentive to bend the rules— the airline's new $15 one-way fee for the first checked bag. However, you'll now need to beware American's newest employees: the luggage police. Anticipating resistance to the surcharge, American has wisely laid on extra bodies. These employees are, essentially, enforcers. Their task will be to monitor strategic locations (security lines, for instance) to see that you aren't toting more than your share of Louis Vuitton bags. Customers with too many items or bags too large to bring aboard, says the airline, "will be assisted in checking their luggage."
So, how will they "assist" passengers, exactly? (I can see it now: "Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to come with me . . . .") American spokesman Tim Smith is confident that those required to pay the fee won't have a prayer of getting around it. Unless, of course, you manage to sneak your contraband roller board past the "curbside check-in, ticket counter check-in, self-serve kiosk check-in, our people stationed before security, the TSA checkpoint itself . . . without anyone noticing," he says. In which case, you'll most certainly be told at boarding that you will need to gate-check your bag. And oh yes, there will be a fee for that, and, yes, there are credit card machines at the gates, Smith says.
Sure, maybe they run out of space in the cabin. Fine, then. For your properly-sized carry-ons that inadvertently end up flying cargo class, there will be no fee. Happy now?
A smooth transition?
The airline says that the whole process has been relatively hassle-free so far—no rush for the overhead bins, no YouTube-worthy fights over space. That could be largely due to the fact that there are some loopholes in the policy. The vast majority of customers— 75 to 80 percent, Smith says—won't pay, due to mileage status, fare type, or itinerary (international travel is excluded).
[Note from SmarterTravel.com Senior Editor Molly Feltner: There's another reason the impact may seem slight so far. The first-checked-bag charge only affects travelers who booked their tickets after June 15, which, at this point, is probably only a small minority of flyers. However, in a few months there will be many travelers who booked after June 15—particularly folks traveling over Thanksgiving or Christmas week. When you subtract the exceptions, the average leisure traveler going on a vacation or visiting family in the U.S. or Canada will definitely be paying the new fees.]
American says it is trying to smooth the baggage process. For example, its self-service check-in kiosks have been reprogrammed to accept payment for any checked bags; it eliminated the $2 fee to check bags at the curb; and its staff are ramping up announcements at the gate and on the plane, reminding people of the rules for storing carry-on luggage (bags go wheel-end first into the overhead, coats stay out of the overhead, small bags go under the seat in front of you, etc.)