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ONE MORE TIME: DON'T CHECK BAGS. EVER.
By Joe Brancatelli
July 31, 2008 -- We always find the Big Six at the nexus of arrogance and incompetence. And we always find the mainstream media covering the Big Six at the nexus of ignorance and obsequiousness.

So now you know why we have acres of abandoned checked bags at the American Airlines terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York just weeks after American began charging travelers for the privilege of checking those bags. And now you know why the media has chosen this moment to suggest that the Big Six have brilliantly deployed baggage fees as a cure for everything from the price of oil to the common cold.

Let's cut through the drivel and restore the factual balance of the universe. Then I'll remind you that the only solution to all this is to pack sanely, carry on and never, ever check luggage with the airlines.

First, the American situation. Early Wednesday morning, a software glitch at the airline's JFK hub meant American passengers faced long flight delays and even longer check-in lines. Worse, since American was forced to deal with bags manually, most of the delayed flights (and the few that ran on-time) went out without baggage. Or, to use American's ludicrous new euphemism: "Many bags may not be accommodated on flights before departure."

Although the problems began around 4 a.m. Wednesday, American didn't bother to alert customers before they came to the airport. Instead, when they reached JFK, passengers were told they could leave their luggage behind and hope it caught up with them later. Or they could wait hours to be reaccommodated on a flight that did happen to have their bags on it.

As the situation dragged on, luggage began to pile up in the public areas of American's terminal. Then American grudgingly put a notice of the problem on its Web site. But you had to know that the obtuse link--which referred to a New York and Tegucigalpa travel policy--was actually information about the baggage meltdown. The link's wording wasn't clarified until late last night and that's when you learned that American, within the terms of its own incompetence, was doing the right thing: waiving baggage charges and allowing flyers to reschedule flights to avoid the mess.

By early this morning, American had tracked down and repaired its glitch. But it will take days to clear the backlog. And American customers around the world are relying on the kindness of strangers (or hotel concierges) in what will be an often-fruitless effort to reunite with their bags.

Now it must be said as plainly as possible: This glitch has nothing to do with the fact that American began charging $25 for the second checked bag on May 12. It has nothing to do with the fact that American became the first Big Six carrier to charge $15 for a first checked bag on June 15. It was, however, another startlingly revelatory coincidence and shows how clueless the Big Six really are. They begin charging la carte fees for services they cannot provide--or provide only slovenly and erratically--and then they wonder why we despise them.

Like I said, where arrogance and incompetence meet, you're sure to find the Big Six.

As for our second topic, the media finding previously unrecognized Big Six brilliance in these luggage fees, let me offer a quick recap: According to a new strain of analysis from the media pack, The Big Six charges aren't so much about raising revenue, but about lowering fuel burn, training passengers to travel lighter and freeing space for more profitable cargo shipments. Oh, and another brilliant bit of analysis: With passengers trained by repugnant fees to check fewer bags, the airlines will lose fewer bags.

First the truth about money: Second-bag fees, and sharply increased charges for excess, overweight and oversized bags, will bring some ancillary revenue for the airlines. And most of that will drop directly to their red-ink-soaked bottom lines. But I've been saying ever since American announced the first-bag fee late in May that there won't be any real profit there. Why? The offsetting cost of deploying more workers to triage bags at the ticket counters and the even-higher cost of delays created by an upsurge in gate-checked carry-on bags.

Lightening the fuel burn? Well, duh. Fewer bags carried means less $125-a-barrel oil used.

More room for high-yield cargo? I've never had an airline executive tell me that his airline had to turn away cargo revenue for lack of space. So fewer checked bags in the hold isn't likely to translate into extra cargo revenue.

Now the big media theme of the week: The Big Six are brilliantly retraining passengers to check fewer bags and that will lead to fewer lost bags. To prove their point, analysts breathlessly point to the fact that "mishandled" bag rates have been declining all year. According to the Transportation Department's Air Travel Consumer Report, reports of lost bags dropped 14 percent in March, 21 percent in April and 23 percent in May.

Uh, fellows? The first major carrier to impose a second-bag fee was United Airlines and it didn't begin charging the $25 until May 5. Some airlines didn't impose their fees until June. So falling mishandled baggage rates in March and April have nothing to do with luggage fees.

And there is no evidence in May's numbers to prove that baggage fees led travelers to check fewer bags and thus helped the airlines lose less luggage. The obvious example: United. Yes, its mishandled bag rate went down in May compared to May of 2007. But Frontier Airlines and JetBlue Airways had larger declines in their respective mishandled baggage rates--and their second bag fees didn't go into effect until June.

As usual, when ignorance and obsequiousness meet, you'll find the mainstream media kissing the Big Six' cottage-cheese butt.

What's it all mean to us? What it has always meant: Don't check luggage. Ever. The airlines lose too much of it, delay too much of it--and now charge you for the privilege. This week, in fact, Delta Air Lines raised its second checked bag fee to $50.

To its credit, Delta continues to allow one free checked bag for each traveler. But a $50 fee to check a bag, even a second one, should reinforce the basic message: Don't check bags. Don't check bags. Don't check bags.

It's not hard to get yourself down to carry-on trim. We covered several packing strategies in a column last year. And as baggage fees rise dramatically, luggage shipping via courier services like FedEx or UPS and reliable third-party firms like Luggage Forward is more cost- and time-effective than ever.

The world of checked bags is now clouded by arrogance, incompetence, ignorance and obsequious behavior. You have the right--nay, the responsibility--to make your life on the road easier by ignoring it all and carrying on.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

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This column is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.