AS ARMY soldier Richard Morris prepared to board a flight at Baltimore-Washington International Airport last fall for his first mission, his mother bid him farewell in the airport lobby with a swelling pride in her heart - and a slight hole in her wallet.
Linda Dawson had just charged $160 worth of fees for excess baggage on her credit card so her son could get all his gear to Fort Campbell in Kentucky, his first stop before eventual deployment in Iraq.
"I thought it was outrageous, but what was I going to let him do, go to camp without his boots?" said Dawson, who drove from her home in southern Pennsylvania about 40 miles north of BWI Airport. "I was surprised, and I wasn't prepared."
Dawson joins many others who are discovering that airlines, with cramped cabins full of carry-ons, are no longer letting that extra bag slide and are reaping millions in extra dollars in revenue from the fees.
Baggage has become another reflection of the changes sweeping commercial aviation. Many more people are flying. And leisure travelers, who generally take a lot more with them than business travelers, have been making up a greater share of the flying public with the rise of discount air fares.
Moreover, as the bottom lines of some airlines have gotten lighter in an increasingly competitive market, the companies have gotten tougher about collecting fees to recoup some of their losses. The average ticket prices per mile flown have sunk below 1986 levels, excluding taxes and the "Sept. 11" security fee that goes to the Transportation Security Administration for screening passengers and bags.
More baggage means less space for other revenue-generating cargo, and heavier planes drive up fuel costs. Changes in suitcase design have also contributed: The proliferation of wheeled luggage has made it physically possible for travelers to cart more stuff.
The Travel Goods Association says the wheeled Pullman case was introduced in the 1970s. Pilots and flight attendants began using them in the 1980s. Their popularity with the general public began in the early 1990s. The advent of wheeled versions of expandable, carry-on and backpack bags are also widely available, from department to discount stores.
Baggage revenue rising
The trends were evident at airplane-loading time one day last week at BWI. Of the 150 to 200 bags riding a conveyor belt into the belly of a Southwest Boeing 737 destined for Los Angeles, maybe only three or four lacked wheels.
"I started noticing a lot of extra checked bags around the holidays," said Bill Wilderson Jr., a Southwest baggage ramp and operations manager. "There were bigger bags and just more of them. ... And just about all of them are the wheely bags."
Airlines have historically charged fees for extra baggage. Baggage revenue has climbed steadily since 1990, according to the government numbers most readily available. But the biggest jump has come since 2001, when leisure travelers began making up more of the airplane loads than business travelers, who often know how to pack light and need fewer things on their typically shorter trips, experts said.
"I guarantee that it's the leisure travelers 99.9 percent of the time" charged with excess baggage fees, said Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition, an advocacy group.
"Business travelers have historically had less flexibility and have paid more for tickets, and airlines haven't been able to figure out how to get more money out of those leisure travelers," he said. "This is one small way."
At least one airline, Alaska Airlines, has begun to automate the baggage check-in process, he said. Passengers put their luggage on a scale and insert a credit card if it exceeds the limit.
The additional baggage fees aren't enough to make or break the airlines. Together, they pulled in more than $259 million in fees in 2003, up from almost $153 million in baggage fees in 2001. That's less than 1 percent of their total $100 billion in annual revenue.
The fees from the last few months of 2004 are not counted but are shaping up to beat the previous years' numbers because passengers carry more luggage during the Christmas holiday, airlines said.
It's not uncommon at airports to see passengers moving items from heavy bags to lighter ones at the check-in counter to avoid the extra fees. Airline policies vary, but in general they allow two 50-pound checked suitcases and one carry-on bag, in addition to a purse or laptop computer case, before charging extra fees. Most airlines display a metal frame at their counter that outlines the acceptable dimensions for passengers to test their bags before checking in.