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Are Bag Fees Buying Better Service?

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Airlines have gotten better at delivering bags on time—heck, delivering them at all—ever since they started charging bag fees. Conventional wisdom is that fewer passengers are checking bags because they want to avoid the fees, thus lessening the burden on airlines’ baggage services.

But in a new column, the Wall Street Journal’s Scott McCartney says there’s more to it than that. “Another major factor, accounting for perhaps half of the industry’s improvement,” McCartney writes, “is the investment airlines have made in new equipment and technology, from hand-held scanners that beep when bags are being loaded onto the wrong flight to repair stations to get baggage tugs and carts fixed quicker.”

He notes that Delta, in particular, has made significant investments in its baggage systems. “Delta Air Lines decided after it came out of bankruptcy in 2007 that it had to spend $100 million to fix its baggage operation in Atlanta.” McCartney says the airline processes about 100,000 bags each day at Hartsfield-Jackson, 70 percent of which are making connections to another destination. Connecting baggage is misplaced most often, he says, so Delta “gutted the entire infrastructure under Terminal B … to make room for an automated baggage system with conveyor belts and optical scanners to read baggage bar-coded tags that links most terminals.”

The result? Delta has seen a 47 percent decrease in lost bags since 2007. That’s not all due to the changes at Hartsfield-Jackson, of course, but as Delta’s biggest hub, the improved accuracy and efficiency there is crucial.

Generally, airlines have gotten smarter about handling bags. “Carriers have ramped up their use of bar-code scanners, for example, to track bags along their journey and alert handlers when bags are being loaded onto the wrong airplane,” McCartney writes. “In some cases, airlines have taken simple steps like reducing the drop points at big airports where airlines leave connecting bags for other carriers to pick up, cutting the time bags sit.”

This isn’t all altruism, either. As McCartney notes, it’s in the airlines’ best interest to improve their service. Customers’ patience with lost bags is short, now that most are paying extra fees to have their bags checked.

Readers, do you feel baggage service has improved? Or do you think it’s all just luck, and fees are a pure gouge? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

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