Next in radical unbundling: Spirit to charge for carry-on luggage

Ultra low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines has become the first airline in the USA – perhaps in the world – to charge passengers with carry-on luggage as much as USD45 each way for stowing a bag in the overhead bin. Spirit said it will add measuring devices at the gates to determine which carry-ons are free and which ones will incur the charge. Personal items that fit under the seat will still be free, as long as they aren’t bigger than 16 x 14 x12 inches (40 x 30 x 20cm). Other exceptions to the fee are umbrellas, coats, strollers or car seats, reading material for the flight, or food passengers bring to eat on board. The new charge is USD30 if paid in advance online, USD45 if paid at the airport, and USD20 for frequent-flyer members. Passengers that pay the carry-on luggage fee will get priority when boarding. 

Spirit, which likes to compare itself to budget carrier Ryanair, was the first US carrier to impose checked baggage fees in 2008 and at the moment all major airlines except Southwest and JetBlue charge to check a bag on domestic flights. However, many passengers have been bringing large and heavy bags into the aircraft instead to avoid checked luggage fees. The U.S Association of Flight Attendants has even launched an ‘End Carry-on Crunch’ campaign to protest against the number of people who bring overstuffed bags on board and clog the overhead space.

Spirit says the main goal of the new fee is to encourage people to either bring less or check a bag (the new carry-on fees are higher than what Spirit charges for checked bag fees), and subsequently improve in-flight security and speed up the boarding and deplaning process. The carrier also defended its move by saying the new carry-on fee is the ‘next phase of unbundling’. Customers only pay for individual things they want, so the airline can keep the base fare low. Spirit will also reduce its lowest fares by USD40 on average when the carry-on fee comes into effect. 

Update April 21: Spirit’s new carry-on fees have led to widespread media attention and a backlash from U.S. politicians, with a group of senators even proposing legislation to ban such a fee. One senator said that five major U.S airlines – Delta, American, United Airlines, US Airways and JetBlue –  agreed not to follow suit. Responding to the controversy, Spirit posted a public letter and video in which CEO Ben Baldanza spoke from inside an overhead compartment to defend the carrier’s decision. In another report Baldanza says the carry-on fee will eliminate delays as the carrier “identified excessive carry-on baggage as the number one controllable reason that our planes were being delayed at the gate”. 

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