Confusion reigns over fees for checked baggage

The Baltimore Sun

I booked my family of four on an Alaska Airlines flight operated by American Airlines. Alaska does not charge for checking the first bag, but American did charge me ($120 total). Alaska has washed its hands of these charges. Can you help?

Let 2008 go down as the year we finally learned to listen to the alarm bells that go off in our heads when we hear:

* "Affording that house? Piece o' cake. We have a great rate that will let you live your dream."

* "I'm sure it's a fantastic investment. Bernie Madoff is behind it."

* "Yes, we do fly to XYZ airport. It just happens to be a flight operated by our friends over at ABC Airlines."

I don't mean to suggest that Alaska and American did anything illegal. They didn't. But like the people who went for subprime loans and the folks who got swept up in Madoff's alleged Ponzi scheme, travelers almost always must figure that what they see is not necessarily what they will get. Or, as Ronald Reagan is credited with saying, "Trust but verify."

In this case, the writer got sucked in by a "code share" situation exacerbated by the baggage issue.

"Code sharing" is a way of extending an airline's reach. US Airways, for instance, might say it has a Los Angeles-to-Washington flight, but it actually is operated by United. If your itinerary says "operated by," let the alarm bells begin.

Because, says Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines, "The general rule of thumb is that the baggage rules of the OPERATING airline (the one operating the aircraft that the customer is flown on) sets the checked baggage fee rules that apply."

And, as Smith notes in his e-mail, Alaska's Web site says, "Passengers originating on a partner or code share flight may be subject to additional restrictions. Please check with the operating carrier for their baggage guidelines."

So you might have thought you were flying on "no-fee-for-the-first-checked-bag" Alaska, but you weren't. You were flying on American, which, after June 15, began charging $15 per checked bag each way for nonelite-status fliers (that is, in most cases, people who don't have lots of frequent-flier miles or a first-class, business-class or full-fare economy ticket).

For a family of four, that's another ka-ching moment just waiting to happen, sort of like having to buy food or drink, pay to talk to a live human being to get a ticket or rent a pillow and a blanket.

So in 2009, as passengers continue to swim up the revenue stream, remember that if you continue to believe that the check is in the mail, you probably won't respect yourself in the morning.

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