United Airlines will begin charging some passengers $50 to check a second piece of luggage on domestic round-trip flights, becoming the first big carrier to impose a fee for a service that has long been included in the price of a ticket.
As of late yesterday, no other major carrier had followed United, but some analysts said that if the move didn't generate significant resistance from consumers, the traditional two-free-bags rule was likely to go the way of other services such as free meals and pillows.
"Everybody is chiseling away at everything that you thought you deserve," said Tom Parsons, chief executive of the travel Web site Bestfares.com. "But people shouldn't be upset, because we still want to fly coast to coast for $199."
United, the nation's second-largest carrier, said the new fee would help offset a 49 percent increase in jet fuel prices over the past 12 months. It also noted that only about 25 percent of its passengers usually checked a second bag.
Still, the fee - $25 for the second bag each way - is expected to generate more than $100 million in additional revenue. In addition, United expects fewer checked bags as a result of the fee, which could lower fuel expenses.
United's chief revenue officer, John P. Tague, announced the policy yesterday, saying the fee would allow the airline to "offer competitive fares to everyone."
The move to charge for luggage would bring legacy carriers one step closer to so-called ultra-low-cost airlines that offer tickets as low as $20 for a round-trip flight but charge for everything, including drinks, pillows and any checked luggage.
Southwest Airlines Co., the world's biggest low-fare carrier, began assessing $25 for a third checked bag Jan. 29.
Skybus and Spirit Airlines charge $5 for each checked bag each way, up to two pieces. Later this month, Spirit is doubling the fee to $10 for flights booked on the Internet. If paying at the airport, the baggage fee will go up to $20.
"There are all kinds of fees these days, and rules are changing by the minute, so it's flier beware," Parsons said.
United's fee, scheduled to take effect May 5, is expected to hit families and leisure travelers hardest.
The policy doesn't apply to international flights, passengers buying higher-priced refundable tickets or to those who have "elite" status with the airline's frequent-flier programs. Those passengers still will be able to check two bags for free.
But for families on a budget who have purchased discounted, nonrefundable tickets, the fees are likely to be hefty, since many typically check two bags per family member.
Peter Pae writes for the Los Angeles Times.