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New bill targets airline bag-check fees

FILE - In this Aug. 3, 2011 fle photo, airline passengers go through the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta. Don?t expect much elbow room on flights this fall. With the busy summer travel season over, airlines are cutting seats available in the U.S. by about 2 percent this fall. (AP Photo/Erik S. Lesser, File)
Erik S. Lesser

Airline passengers go through the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta on August 3, 2011.
Erik S. Lesser

Updated: 1:27 p.m. ET

As the height of the holiday travel season nears, one lawmaker is trying to ease the burden on travelers with a new bill that would limit airlines' abilities to charge customers for checking bags.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., this week introduced the Airline Passenger BASICS Act (the "BASIC" stands for Basic Airline Standards to Improve Customer Satisfaction) - which would mandate that airlines allow fliers one free checked bag within certain weight limits per flight, and would guarantee passengers "certain minimum standards," according to a statement by Landieu's office. It would also require airlines to disclose any luggage fees they may have to pay in advance.

"When an airline advertises a flight, that is how much it should cost, plain and simple," Landreiu said in the statement. "Passengers should not be charged additional fees for checked or carry-on baggage, drinkable water or other reasonable requests. Air travel can be a stressful experience for many reasons, but unfair fees for basic amenities should not be one of them."

Landrieu, who argued that passengers "have been nickeled and dimed for far too long," said she also planned to introduce the Fair Airline Industry Revenue (FAIR) Act, which would punish noncompliant airlines with additional fees.

Proponents of the bill contend that the imposition of bag check fees has led travelers to carry on their luggage rather than check bags - which can lead both to shortages of overhead storage space on the plane, as well as increased inspection requirements at security.

Testifying at a Senate appropriations subcommittee on homeland security in March, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the baggage check fees were costing the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) $260 million a year.

"When you have to pay to check a bag it increases carry-on luggage, and that means there is more to inspect at the gate," she said.

Landrieu pointed to a recent study by the U.S. Travel Association, which shows that, when asked to list their top frustrations with air travel, 72.4 percent of respondents cited "people who bring too many carry-on bags through the security checkpoint."

She argues that her bill will combat that frustration - because Americans will no longer feel compelled to carry on all of their luggage to avoid fees.

"Many airlines consider checking a bag not to be a right, but a privilege - and one with a hefty fee attached. The Airline Passenger BASICS Act will guarantee passengers one checked bag without the financial burden of paying a fee, or the headache of trying to fit everything into a carry-on," she said.

A representative for the Air Transport Association, however, says that imposing regulations on what airlines can or cannot charge for is "the wrong way to go for the government" and that it would ultimately limit the scope of choice available to travelers.

"We don't think it's appropriate for the government to tell or dictate to private industries what services they can or cannot offer to the consumer and at what price," said Steve Lott, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, in an interview with Hotsheet. "We would argue that in fact that would reduce choice and competition for the customer."

Lott noted that some airlines, such as Southwest and Jet Blue, do not have baggage-check fees -- and that's what makes them competitive to some customers.

"They've made a decision not to charge for the first bag as a point of differentiation for the competition," he said. "Today there is intense competition and a lot of choice in the airline industry -- and that's the way that the market should work."

He argued that rather than imposing more stringent regulations on airlines, the government should be focusing on streamlining the airport security process.

"The government imposing its judgment about competitive services will not improve wait times," he said. "Rather than having Congress limit choice and regulate what airlines can or cannot offer to passengers, regulators should focus on the efficiency of the checkpoint."

It is unlikely that Landrieu's bill will get a vote before the end of the year, given the tight congressional calendar -- but whether it will gain traction beyond that remains an open question.