06 SEP 2018: Remember me? I’m the guy that used to write columns here every week before I took off for a return to commercial aviation – an industry I thought I had managed to shake. It seems however that all that time on the therapist’s couch went for naught!

Well I am back in the saddle and, as is to be expected, spending way too much time on airplanes. Last week was not atypical and saw me take six flights in six days as I buzzed around between New York, Toronto, Edmonton and Montreal. I’ve been doing this pretty much incessantly now since May 1st but strangely it was only on this week’s trip that I really tuned into just how advanced the newest sport in air travel has become. But let me back up a little and explain the origins of the game…

My first BAGANALIA article ran back in 2014, when, out of the blue, on Sep. 15th WestJet announced its intention to introduce checked baggage fees. Then, by an amazing coincidence  - dare I say ‘no collusion’ - a mere three days later Air Canada followed suit. It must be noted that this was not a ‘de-bundling’ exercise but more of a bundling up money grab. Pre-announcement fares that had always included a so-called ‘free’ checked bag ‘entitlement’ didn’t go down – Joe Public simply had to cough up an additional $25 for a checked bag.

But guess what? That checked fee instantly created a $25 incentive for cash conscious passengers to find ways to sneak their baggage on board rather than pay to stow it in the belly. Wheelies got instantly bigger and fatter and the game was on.

The rules are quite simple: To avoid the $25 checked bag fee, all you have to do is get the wheeled brute as far as the departure gate. Once there you might get lucky and sneak the beast on board or when it doesn’t fit in the dreaded sizing device, you might have to gate check it. Either way, you have successfully saved yourself/cheated the carrier out of 25 bucks.  As for the resulting wheelie-induced mayhem with boarding, overhead stowage wars and painfully slow disembarkation processes… it ain’t pretty!

What’s amazing however is the way that, rather than penalizing passengers who are caught in flagrante trying to cheat the system, almost every major carrier has instead rolled over and effectively said, “Okay you win.”

This admission of failure comes in the form of a gate area PA that is now almost ubiquitous on every departure.  If you’ve flown lately you must have heard it: It goes something like, “Passengers on Flight 123 to XYZ are advised that, as this is a full flight, we have insufficient bin space for everyone’s bags. We are therefore looking for volunteers to gate check their bags free of charge. I repeat there will be no charge for checking these bags.” I have seldom see more than a couple of people readily accept the offer and they are usually the ones with bulging bags that simply would never have made it on board.

So, when I read last week that Air Canada and WestJet had simultaneously increased their first checked bag fees by $5, my flabber was truly gasted.  No three- day gap between the two announcements this time around, “After you, Ed.” “No, Calin, please go right ahead.”

This effectively means the checked bag avoidance prize has just increased by 20 percent! “Now you can save an extra $5 by finagling your bag to the gate!” could have been the headline. Utter craziness!

Compare the ease of boarding and deplaning on those few carriers that have instead created a disincentive to wheel a cabin trunk on board. They do it by charging a carry-on fee that’s slightly higher than the checked fee – Spirit was the first carrier to do it – and as a result only 50 percent or fewer of their passengers have wheelies in tow. Getting on and off is a breeze not a battle.

There are only two carriers in Canada currently doing this – I’ll let you figure out their names – but without a doubt it is by far and away the most intelligent solution to the rampant curse of the ‘baganalia’ get it to the gate game.  

There again, such disruptively smart innovation does take a lot of flair!

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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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