Senate Panel Investigates US Airline Baggage and Seat Selection Fees

Wim De Gent
By Wim De Gent
November 21, 2023US News
Senate Panel Investigates US Airline Baggage and Seat Selection Fees
Passengers wait in line to claim their baggage at Nashville International Airport after their flights on Southwest Airlines were cancelled in Nashville, Tenn., on Dec. 27, 2022. (Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images)

A U.S. Senate panel on Monday announced an investigation into airline fees for baggage, seat selection, ticket changes, and other services, and demanded justifications from the CEOs of five major airline companies.

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who chairs the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said these fees—which amount to billions of dollars in annual revenue for airlines—are often hidden from customers or presented in a confusing manner.

Mr. Blumenthal said the chief executives of American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Spirit Airlines, and Frontier Airlines have each been sent a letter requesting a detailed breakdown on how much their companies collect from each fee, the justifications for each fee, and the costs to supply each service charged.

“U.S. airlines increasingly charge ancillary fees that obscure the actual cost of air travel,” Mr. Blumenthal said in the letters.

“These itemized fees are often not disclosed to customers until well into the ticket purchasing process or after a ticket has been purchased, making it difficult for customers to know the true, total cost of a ticket and comparison shop prior to purchase,” Blumenthal added.

According to numbers provided by the senator, the total revenue across major U.S. airlines from baggage fees increased by almost 40 percent between 2018 and 2022—from $4.9 billion to $6.8 billion. Mr. Blumenthal also mentioned a report by a travel consultancy which found that eight leading U.S. airlines last year collected an estimated combined total of $4.2 billion in fees for seat selection.

United Plane
A United Airlines plane is pushed from the gate at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on Aug. 11, 2023. (David J. Phillip/AP Photo)

American, Delta, and United referred questions about the Senate investigation to Airlines for America, an industry trade group formerly known as the Air Transport Association of America, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2018, airline CEOs lobbied against bipartisan legislation to mandate “reasonable and proportional” baggage and change fees, and convinced Congress to drop the plan.

Last year, the U.S. Transportation Department proposed introducing a requirement for airlines to disclose fees for baggage, ticket changes, and family seating the instant an airfare is displayed.

“My administration is also cracking down on the airlines,” President Biden said when he announced the measures at a meeting of the White House competition council in Sept. 2022. “You should know the full cost of your ticket right when you’re comparison shopping to begin with … so you can pick the ticket that actually is the best deal for you,” he added.

The U.S. Transportation Department also objected to some companies displaying the extra fees only after the purchase of the ticket has been completed.

In 2021 the U.S. Transportation Department also proposed that airline passengers should get refund fees for significantly delayed bags, as well as refunds if onboard services like Wi-Fi are out of order.

The department is scheduled to finalize both of these regulations in early 2024.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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