Airline Baggage Fees: On the Rise — Yet More Passengers Deem Them ‘Reasonable’

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Even as overall baggage fees have increased, some of the nation’s biggest airlines aren’t collecting as much as they did a couple of years ago. Perhaps even more surprisingly, there’s been a sharp rise in travelers who aren’t bothered by the idea of paying extra for checked luggage.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics just released airline revenue data for 2012, and guess what? We paid more in fees than the year before. The Associated Press and other outlets highlighted how the nation’s 15 largest airlines collected baggage fees totaling $3.5 billion and $2.6 billion worth of ticket change fees, representing increases of 3.8% and 7.3%, respectively, compared to 2011.

The numbers probably aren’t surprising to the average traveler. Airline fees have been rising for years, and the idea that baggage fees crept up by merely a few percentage points may even come as somewhat of a relief. A closer look at the BTS’s figures, however, offers some data that is a bit of a surprise. Delta tops the list of baggage fee collectors, with $866 million in 2012. Yet Delta barely increased its baggage fee revenues last year; they reached roughly the same level ($864 million) in 2011. What’s more, the totals of both years are down significantly from 2010, when Delta reaped $952 million in baggage fees alone.

(MORE: One Airline That Stubbornly Refuses to Pile on Fees — For Now)

So believe it or not, the $866 million in baggage fees collected by Delta probably comes as a disappointment to the airline. Insiders said last summer that Delta had plans to collect an extra $1 billion in passenger fees—all kinds, not just baggage—annually by 2014.

Delta isn’t the only major carrier struggling to siphon more baggage fee money from customers. American Airlines has also seen a falloff in baggage fees: $580 million in 2010, $593 million in 2011, and “just” $557 million in 2012.

Meanwhile, Spirit Airlines, the country’s most fee-crazed carrier, managed to crank up baggage fee tallies to $168 million last year, more than the double the total in 2010. A pair of other relatively small carriers, Alaska Airlines and Frontier Airlines, also boosted their baggage fee totals in recent years: Alaska hit $151 million in 2012, compared to $109 million in 2010, while Frontier collected $70 million in 2012, up from $62 million in 2010.

(MORE: Oof! Airline Fees Rise Yet Again: At Least $200 to Change a Flight)

In some cases, the increased totals can be traced directly to the airline jacking up one or more baggage fees. Certainly, though, much of the rise and fall in an individual airline’s baggage fee totals is attributable to whether it has been expanding or contracting the number of flights and routes offered in recent years. More flights = more passengers = more potential for baggage fees.

Overall, the increase in baggage fees paid may be the result of more passengers finally coming around to accept that the charges are here to stay—and perhaps are even worth paying. Don’t get me wrong: The majority of airline travelers hate these fees and avoid them if possible. And yet, according to the latest J.D. Power airline satisfaction survey, there has been a dramatic increase in baggage fees being deemed “reasonable,” at least among the passengers willing to pony up for them. As the study states:

Some 37% of passengers who pay for bags agree that the fees are reasonable, compared to 28% last year and 18% in 2011.

The airlines probably view such data with glee, even though it’s basically a reflection that the flying experience has been severely downgraded in the minds of travelers, who expect less and less out of airlines.

(MORE: The Perpetual Traveler: Q&A with Lonely Planet Founder Tony Wheeler)

Oh, and by the way, which airlines topped the J.D. Power survey for overall customer satisfaction? No surprise here: JetBlue received the highest scores, followed closely by Southwest Airlines. Both airlines just so happen to charge the fewest fees in the industry, and even allow at least one free checked bag per passenger.