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New Spirit Carry-On Restrictions: A Race To The Bottom

Spirit, the airline everyone love to hate, is tightening up its rules on carry-on bags, which were already among the industry’s most restrictive.

As has become standard practice in the industry, Spirit charges extra for checked bags. Where Spirit differs from most other airlines is in also charging fees to carry one’s own bag on board. That’s right: You’re charged for checking your bag, and you’re charged for carrying it on. The only exception is for a so-called personal item, which flyers may carry on board for free.

Beginning on April 4, that personal item must not exceed 18 x 14 x 8 inches, down from the current 16 x 14 x 12 inches.

Spirit is known for its customer-unfriendly ways, so it’s hardly a surprise that the airline is making it even harder for flyers to avoid the niggling fees that make its published ultra-low fares look a lot like the bait in bait-and-switch. What is surprising is the likely motive for the Spirit’s rule change.

Earlier this month, when American announced its new Basic Economy fares—cheap coach fares with few perks and plenty of restrictions and fees, to directly compete with Spirit, Frontier, and other ultra-low-cost carriers—one of the new fares’ most notably harsh restrictions was the limit on free carry-ons to one personal item. Just like Spirit’s rule, except that American imposed an even stricter size limit on personal items, of 18 x 14 x 8 inches. Which is exactly the new size limit Spirit will impose from April 4.

So, American copies Spirit’s no-frills fares, making them even less generous. Spirit responds by copying the stricter feature of American’s new fares, in the process establishing what’s likely to be a new (and newly harsher) industry standard for basic economy fares.

Sure, matching prices and features is in the nature of competition. But in this case, rather than the invisible hand of the marketplace nudging companies to better serve consumers, we have a race to the bottom.

Reader Reality Check

How low can they go?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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