History of Airline Fees: Bags, Food & More

Published by Rick Seaney on August 21, 2017

Plane takes off

The First Fees

It was May 2008 when American Airlines announced it would begin charging a fee for all checked-bags, the first major U.S. carrier to do so. Smaller, discount carriers such as Allegiant and Spirit had been charging bag fees since 2007 or earlier, but this was a huge step for a legacy carrier.

How much: Early bag fees weren’t terribly expensive; American initially charged $15 each-way for a first checked-bag. Today, all legacy carriers (American, Delta, United) charge $25 each-way on domestic flights.

Why fees: Airlines said they needed fees to help with the high cost of jet fuel and other expensive after-effects of the 2008 recession. While it’s true oil did soar to nearly $150 per barrel, it’s since dropped to around $50, yet the fees remain. The reason is simple; fees earn airlines billions and billions of dollars. Are we stuck with fees forever? Yes – and no.

Bag Fees

Pack a big bag in the U.S. (and many other countries) and you’ll pay for it – with one notable exception.

  • 2008: American Airlines is the first legacy carrier to charge passengers a first checked-bag fee and the others quickly follow.
  • 2010: Spirit Airlines breaks a new barrier by imposing a carryon bag fee; other discount carriers soon follow.
  • 2016/2017: American and United introduce new Basic Economy fares on certain routes, fares that require passengers to check and pay for any carry-on bags.
  • 2017: Southwest remains the lone hold-out on bag fees with free carry-ons and two free checked-bags.

Food & Drink, Blankets & Pillows

The good news is, some of these old amenities are starting to make a comeback. First, bags:

  • 2001: After 9/11, many airlines begin dropping meal service on domestic flights.
  • 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 drinks (because no other airline joined in).
  • 2010: Continental serves up the last free meal in coach in autumn; Continental itself would soon be gone after its merger with United.
  • 2017: Delta announces the return of free meals in coach/economy class, on certain routes; within weeks, American makes a similar announcement.

Next, pillows and blankets:

  • 2008: JetBlue announces it will charge $7 for a pillow and blanket (which passengers can keep).
  • 2009: US Airways begins charging for pillows/blankets. The airline itself, meanwhile, would soon disappear into a merger with American Airlines.
  • 2017: Few airlines still offer blankets and pillows for free or for a fee.

Miscellaneous Fees

First, credit cards. Note: This is no fee per se involved in airlines credit card acceptance (beyond the fee card companies might charge) but it is included because it illustrates an in-flight inconvenience.

  • 2005: Hawaiian Airlines starts accepting credit cards on some flights.
  • 2010: Twelve U.S. carriers have credit card-only policies, which soon becomes the norm (and this is true for many airlines around the world).

Again, this is not a fee – more like a veiled airfare price hike – but it is included because it was another charge for passengers.

  • 2009: Several airlines begin adding surcharges to tickets for peak travel days in September; 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, not for holiday periods but for travel anytime.
  • Recent years: Surcharges imposed on international routes during the past several years were often referred to as ‘fuel surcharges’ and sometimes cost hundreds of dollars. Since then, some surcharges remain though the word ‘fuel’ has been dropped from the name and the cost is much lower.


Fees will Stay

Most fees – like baggage fees on airlines around the world – will not be going away. The reason is two-fold:

  • Passengers have largely accepted these fees, and shown themselves willing to pay.
  • Airlines make a lot of money off these charges; bag fees alone bring in billions of dollars each year.


How to Avoid Fees

Pack light: Travelers can often save money by packing a carry-on instead of a large suitcase. Always check to see what bags the airline charges for and which ones (if any) are free.

Bring food from home: Pack your own lunch and save on that $10 airline sandwich (which won’t be as good as homemade). You can’t bring a bottle of water through security but you can bring an empty and fill it up once you get past the checkpoint at one of the increasing numbers of airport filling stations.

Always compare airfares: If you always compare airfare prices, you can usually save money on your plane tickets – sometimes significantly – which lessens the impact of fees.



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