Airline Fees – A Brief History on Paying for Bags, Food and More

The first shot in the war over bag fees came in May of 2008, when American Airlines announced it would be the first legacy carrier to impose a “first checked-bag” fee (the same Allegiant and Spirit baggage fees appeared at least as early as 2007, as far as we can determine).

Bag Fees Begin, Bag Fees Rise

Anyway, back in 2008, when AA broke this bag barrier, the airline charged $15 each-way for a first checked-bag. Today that fee is $25.

Why did they do it?  The airline said they took this step as part of a series of actions to help with the soaring cost of jet fuel. Eventually, the cost of oil got close to $150 per barrel but you will notice the price has dropped since then, while the bag fee has only risen.

Should airline bag fees be abolished? Well, the airlines are coming off some very bad years, what with the economic meltdown, H1N1 virus, a volcano in Iceland and much, much more. But even if it was smooth sailing from now on, I doubt it would happen – those bags just make too much money.

Timeline: Airline Fees

So now – a brief history of airline fees. Take a look and tell us which ones you think are worth it, and which ones are an insult to your wallet. For a quick reference to baggage fees across multiple carriers, take a look at our Worldwide Baggage Fee Chart.

Fee Bags, Free Bags

2008 – American Airlines is the first legacy carrier to charge passengers that first checked-bag fee – others quickly follow

2010 – Spirit Airlines breaks a new bag barrier by imposing a carryon bag fee (something Rick Seaney predicted one of the airlines might do, nearly a year before it happened)

2010 – Just two carriers remain with free bags: JetBlue (1 bag), Southwest (2 bags)

Blankets and Pillow

2008 – In August, JetBlue announces it will charge $7 for a pillow and blanket (but you do get to keep them)

2009 – US Airways begins charging for pillows/blankets

Food and Drink

2001 – After 9/11, many airlines begin dropping meal service

2003 – Delta starts selling snack boxes on some of its flights

2005 – United begins selling $5 snack boxes in place of meals

2008 – US Airways begins a highly criticized practice: charging for all drinks (including water, coffee, and soda)

2009 – US Airways stops charging for all drinks (mainly because no other airline dared join them)

2010 – Continental announces its last “free Coach meal” will be served in the fall of this year (and Continental itself would soon be gone after its merger with United)

Credit Cards*

2005 – Hawaiian Airlines starts accepting credit cards on some flights; by 2006, a few more flights went “cashless” and a policy of “credit cards only” on all routes was established by 2008

2010 – Twelve U.S. carriers have a “credit card only” policy (a group that includes all the legacy carriers)

*This is no fee per se involved in this (beyond what a card company might charge) but we include it because it illustrates an in-flight inconvenience.

Those Pesky Peak Travel Day Surcharges**

2009 – Airlines began adding surcharges to tickets for “peak travel days” in September of ’09; originally this surcharge was imposed on the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holiday periods.

2010 – Surcharges continue throughout the spring and summer of 2010 and beyond (see our Peak Travel Day Surcharge Chart).

** Again, this is not a fee, exactly – more like a veiled airfare price hike, but we include it because it represents another charge to you the passenger.

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Updated: July 5, 2016