European airlines can charge extra for check-in luggage: top court

LUXEMBOURG (AFP) - Airlines are within their rights to charge passengers extra for checked-in luggage, Europe's top court ruled on Thursday in a decision that will be welcomed by low-cost carriers.

The European Court of Justice upheld a challenge by Spanish budget carrier Vueling Airlines against a Spanish law that prohibits airlines from making people pay for putting their suitcases in the aircraft's hold.

The case concerned a charge of 40 euros (S$65.33) that Vueling added to the tickets of a Spanish woman but which also applies to airlines across the continent, the EU's most senior court said.

"EU law precludes legislation, such as the Spanish law, that requires air carriers to carry, in all circumstances, not only the passenger but also baggage checked in by him for the price of the plane ticket, without any price supplement," the ECJ said.

The Luxembourg-based court said check-in baggage charges were "not an unavoidable and foreseeable item of the price of the air service" but could be an "optional price supplement in respect of a complementary service" under EU law.

There was no immediate reaction from Vueling, which was acquired in 2013 by International Airlines Group, the parent company which controls British Airways and Spain's Iberia.

The case was brought by a Spanish woman, Arias Villegas, who paid 241.48 euros for four return tickets between La Coruna, Spain and Amsterdam in 2010, but was then charged a further 40 euros when she checked in two bags online, the court said.

A Spanish consumer watchdog fined Vueling 3,000 euros but a Spanish court then referred the case to Luxembourg to see if it complied with EU law on pricing freedom.

The ECJ said it had noted that airlines were increasingly charging passengers for checked-in bags and that some passengers preferred to save money by travelling with only hand luggage.

"Having regard to those considerations, the service of carriage of checked-in baggage cannot be considered to be compulsory or necessary for the carriage of passengers," it said.

At the same time, the ECJ said airlines could not charge for carry-on bags, as long as they met size limits, as they were a "necessary item".