Critics: Baggage fees add to long airport lines

As airport and government officials search for a fix for the long airport security lines plaguing airports in Atlanta and other U.S. cities, one possible culprit has come into focus: Baggage fees.

Some say fees for checked bags prompt travelers to carry on more bags, all of which have to be screened at security checkpoints as passengers head to their gates.

Two U.S. senators have proposed that airlines stop charging baggage fees this summer. But airlines are loathe to lose the hundreds of millions in revenue they collect from baggage fees.

In a letter to airline executives, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) acknowledged many factors play into the lines, including staffing cuts for federal screeners and tighter security protocols after lapses revealed in tests.

But they told the executives: “You can take some action right away…suspend bag fees for the summer.” The letter, citing Transportation Security Administration information, said checkpoints serving airlines with checked baggage fees handled 27 percent more roller bags than checkpoints for carriers that do not.

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A spokesman for Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, which charges $25 for a first checked bag, said the senators’ request would entail a “considerable change to the business model.”

“We don’t think that shifting that traffic to the baggage check area … would really help alleviate a lot,” said the spokesman, Michael Thomas.

He said Delta is working with TSA on strategies to cut wait times, including contributing staff to help manage lines and paying for new lanes aimed at processing large volumes of passengers faster.

In the third quarter of 2015, Delta collected nearly $237 million in baggage fees. American Airlines took in $292 million, while United Airlines had more than $184 million in bag fee revenue.

Southwest Airlines, a distant second to Delta in market share at Hartsfield-Jackson International, does not charge fees for the first two checked bags.

While senators can ask airlines to waive bag fees, “I don’t think you’re going to see that happen,” said Bill Rinehart, founder of DUFL, a personal valet service that ships, cleans and stores business wear for travelers.

“It’s a massive revenue stream. They’re all private businesses. I’m not sure why they would feel like they need to do that for the government.”

Hartsfield-Jackson is considering — but has not committed to — another possibility: a “one-bag only” express lane, with the idea that those travelers “have the potential to get through the process quicker,” airport general manager Miguel Southwell said.

In 2011, Pittsburgh International Airport tested an “Express Lane” for travelers with one bag. The idea was “a result of more people carrying more items through the checkpoint to avoid airline bag fees,” according a statement when the lane opened. Those with a roll-aboard suitcase plus a purse or briefcase did not qualify for the one-bag only lane.

Pittsburgh did not stick with the idea, but it was a precursor to the TSA PreCheck expedited screening program.

In Atlanta, there are already PreCheck lines, as well as a line for elite-level frequent fliers, a special assistance lane and a line for airline crewmembers. Also in the works is a line for members of a program run by biometric identification technology firm Clear.

A one-bag line could further confuse travelers, but it is at least under discussion.

“We are interested in trying out anything that will lessen the amount of time our customers will wait in a security line this summer,” another Delta spokesman, Morgan Durrant, said of the concept.

Early Monday, security screening lines up to an hour long or more snaked through the domestic terminal and around baggage claim carousels at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Lines for TSA checkpoints have been especially long for more than a week amid the closure of the Terminal South checkpoint for a redesign of two security lanes aimed at speeding screening. The checkpoint is expected to reopen May 24.

Meanwhile, Airport workers offered chewy granola bars, Rice Krispies treats, animal crackers and bottled water to passengers in the queues.

Lines and wait times began building at Hartsfield-Jackson months ago and recently have become an issue at other U.S. airports as well.

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