Free checked baggage in basic economy may soon be a memory

Delta and three of its European joint venture partners - Air France, Alitalia and KLM - will soon add a US$60 charge to check a bag if customers purchase the basic fare. PHOTO: REUTERS

TEXAS (WASHINGTON POST) - Delta Air Lines will soon demolish a travel shibboleth that dates back decades. The airline's introduction of its "basic economy" fares across the Atlantic will herald the end of free checked bags for international travellers who choose the lowest price.

Starting April 10, Delta and three of its European joint venture partners - Air France, Alitalia and KLM - will add a US$60 charge to check a bag if you purchase the basic, or "light" fare now offered on more than half of its European routes.

In other words, pay less for your ticket and more for luggage, or just limit yourself to a carry on. Delta's change, announced last month, also extends restrictions similar to those found on domestic routes, such as an advanced seat assignment, ticket changes or refunds.

This type of economy-class fare segmentation has become the primary weapon of "full-service" network airlines such as Delta and United in their battle with low-cost rivals.

Their expansion of no-frills fares is aimed at upstarts such as Norwegian and WOW Air, which charge to check any bag as part of their bargain approach. Some of the bag fees are as much as US$130, dwarfing the fare price. This week, for example, Reykjavik-based WOW was selling tickets from the US to Iceland for US$69.99 and to other European cities for US$89.99.

The basic economy fare is "a great tool for us to be more competitive in terms of the fare itself with the (ultra low-cost carriers) in the transatlantic", Delta president Glen Hauenstein told analysts on Jan 11. "And we're very optimistic about how that will play out."

For travellers, the big questions is whether - or perhaps how quickly - the rest of the big players may follow Delta's lead on an international basic economy class. After all, American Airlines Group and United Continental Holdings both copied Delta's domestic basic economy fare.

In August, American's senior vice-president of revenue, Donald Casey, said such a fare class makes sense for the trans-Atlantic market. But the airline, along with rivals United and Air Canada, have yet to pull the trigger. "We continually monitor developments in the industry," said Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzgerald.

In some ways, the super-cheap economy fares are a prelude to sticker shock when extras are tallied. Airlines don't really want you to buy these fares so much as they want you to feel good about going for the next higher class. As a result, carriers measure basic economy's success by its commercial unpopularity - the more passengers who trade up, the better. American has said that about half of its customers select the regular economy fare, while United claims an even larger share.

A bag fee can provide some motivation. Indeed, Alitalia's pricing on Jan 17 for a roundtrip flight in May from New York to Rome illustrates this dynamic. Assuming a traveller had a full-sized suitcase to check, the US$45 difference between the airline's light and regular economy fares was less than the US$60 bag fee you'd pay for going with the light fare. Delta's fare gap was generally higher, US$100 to US$120, on most routes.

Airlines do note that there is a growing demand for the cheapest fares among passengers toting only carry ons.

"The growth of discount carriers, who charge all passengers checked baggage fees, demonstrates the demand for low fares by price-conscious consumers who do not want to check baggage," Air France-KLM spokesman Arturo Diaz said.

Another reason why the industry may fall in line behind Delta? There's a lot of money in it.

Over the past decade, ancillary revenues at the 10 airlines that collect the most in fees jumped from US$2.1 billion to more than US$28 billion by 2016, according to IdeaWorks. The top three US carriers accounted for US$16.3 billion of that amount.

Bag fees "have proven to be big revenue generators, and they too will become status quo in the trans-Atlantic by end of 2019, and globally thereafter", according to Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks, a travel consulting firm.

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