To reduce sometimes lengthy lines at airport security checkpoints, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Monday that America’s airlines need to drop their baggage fees this summer.
Not only would it save people time and money, he said, it would also make them safer.
“We are urging the airlines to do the right thing,” Blumenthal said.
During a press conference at the Sheraton Hotel at Bradley International Airport, Blumenthal called the pileups at many Transportation Security Agency checkpoints soft targets that terrorists are eyeing.
Citing the March 22 attack at the Brussels airport that killed at least 17 people and wounded many others, the Connecticut Democrat said the long lines waiting to get past the metal detectors “have become the new target of choice for violent extremists.”
Blumenthal and U.S. Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts have urged airlines to allow people to check bags for free in order to reduce the number that require inspection by Transportation Security Administration workers at checkpoints, something that adds to the delays facing passengers at many airports.
Blumenthal said the request to 12 major airlines would likely reduce the number of carry-on bags if the fees were dropped, at least during the busy summer travel season.
But there’s little sign that the airlines will go along. They make nearly $4 billion annually from baggage fees, the senator said, and none have shown any indication they will drop the charges.
The Denver-based Frontier Airlines, the only one to respond formally, told the senators in a May 12 letter that it shares concerns about the lines but don’t think dropping the baggage fee will help.
Frontier’s president, Barry Biffle, said it actually charges flyers more to bring large bags on the plane than to check them, creating an incentive not to bring luggage on board. He said adopting the senators’ position would increase fares and wind up costing customers more.
Blumenthal said that whacking customers for more money if they bring their bags on board is “adding insult to injury” and doesn’t solve the problem.
Lengthy security lines have rarely been a problem at Bradley, but travelers at major hubs are finding that wait times have grown ever longer, causing more of them to miss flights and creating scheduling headaches.
Officials with TSA have announced plans to hire 768 more agents to help at checkpoints, but Blumenthal pointed out that the agency dropped 5,800 employees in recent years to cope with congressionally mandated budget cuts. The senator said that extra workers alone aren’t going to solve the problem.
Blumenthal said that dropping the baggage fee isn’t the whole answer either, but it would help.
Airlines began imposing the extra charge in 2008 in response to soaring fuel costs and sinking profits. They’ve retained the fees even though fuel is much cheaper and their bottom lines are generally rosy. Earlier this year Al Wang, Pratt & Whitney’s Senior Manager for Forecasting & Planning, told the Connecticut Airport Authority’s board of directors that airline profits are so high now that the commercial aviation industry is essentially experiencing a “golden age.”
According to airfarewatchdog.com, airlines generally charge between $20 and $45 for the first checked bag, $30 to $55 for the second, and then higher rates for additional luggage.
Given that airlines are “rolling in profits,” they should give up the fees “out of respect for their customers,” Blumenthal said.
The TSA has said that people bring 27 percent more carry-ons with them when they have to pay to check luggage, adding to the pressure at checkpoints.
There’s growing public ire at the long lines encountered at airport security. An airline-sponsored push to flood social media with images of the backups using the hashtag #IHateTheWait makes it obvious that delays are rampant across the country.
But how best to deal with them remains an open question.
The airlines argue that dropping the fees on bags will push up fares and do little to speed anyone through security.
Sharon Pinkerton, a senior vice president of the trade association Airlines for America, said the federal government views the maximum acceptable wait time for security as 29 minutes, “but we are seeing lines that go 60 or 90 minutes at some major airports.”
As one potential avenue for improvement, airlines are urging customers to sign up for the TSA Pre-Check program that offers a better chance of getting through checkpoints faster.
The airlines group also urged passengers to play their part by making sure they’re ready to show their boarding passes and identification when they reach the TSA. People should also pay attention to the rules about what’s allowed on planes so they don’t add to the delay by having prohibited items with them, the group said.
Blumenthal said if the airlines don’t take action to remove baggage charges, he’ll seek legislation to force their hand — a move the industry sharply opposes as an unnecessary and potentially costly step backward from the 1978 deregulation that helped airlines prosper while fares fell.
Whatever happens with the baggage charge, it’s not going to have much impact on Blumenthal personally.
While he flies frequently between Connecticut and the nation’s capital, he said he doesn’t bring any bags along.