We (Heart) Bag Fees!?

Times article an insult to consumer reporting, common sense

The week before Christmas, I wrote a column about the poor state of consumer reporting in the United States. Imagine my reaction, then, as I read a December 23 New York Times article aboard a plane from New York to Oakland, which asserted that passengers are learning to “live” with baggage fees.

I almost choked on my cocktail peanuts. On my previous trip, I’d waited four days for luggage that I had paid $25 to check. The idea that customers are somehow “enamored” (yes, the story actually leads with that adjective) of paying more money for the same lackluster service is simply preposterous.

One may wonder how Times reporter Susan Stellin came up with this nonsensical conclusion about bag fees? You’ll love this. The airlines told her. It’s like asking the lion if the lamb likes to be eaten.

The first person Stellin quotes is Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines, who told her that, “By all accounts it’s gone smoother than we anticipated … Our biggest concern was that we might see people trying to take things that were inappropriate as carry-ons, but it hasn’t been a big problem.” To be fair, Stellin notes that there have been “cries of protest” and “bumps in the road.” But her approach to reporting epitomizes one of the worst trends in consumer reporting—emphasizing businesses (read: advertisers) rather than customers, a deplorable practice that David Cay Johnston discussed at length in an article he wrote for CJR last fall.

Stellin’s thesis that “bag fees proved to be less of a headache than many expected” is nothing more than abject pandering to the airlines. In fact, before she gets around to actually quoting a member of the flying public, her piece devolves into a glop of free advertising for the industry, and even specific companies:

Most airlines waive their luggage fees for elite frequent fliers, passengers in first or business class, customers who purchase full-fare economy tickets and those traveling on government or military fares.

In addition, Continental gives customers who use its co-branded Chase credit and debit cards one free checked bag, and that benefit is extended to anyone listed in the same reservation as the card holder who checks in at the same time.

Nowhere, of course, does Stellin mention that choosing one of those options will cost you far more than the bag fee. This kind of feckless, pro-business reporting is what CJR contributor and consumer affairs reporter Trudy Lieberman calls “consumerism,” in which journalists try to teach readers to be “better buyers” rather than identifying problems in the marketplace. To paraphrase a quote Lieberman used in a recent feature for CJR, it’s all about telling individuals how to find the safest and tastiest tomato for themselves, rather than how all tomatoes could be made safe and tasty.

If Stellin had wanted to ask some all-tomatoes questions, she might have gone with: Why haven’t cost savings generated from bag fees been passed on to customers or re-invested in improvements to baggage handling services? Or, why do customers not get automatic refunds on those fees when their bags don’t arrive with their flight?

When Stellin finally gets around to mentioning some actual customers, she interviews a man named Brian Lynch, who says he has gotten used to packing light. Fair enough. But wait! There’s more. “Since he has elite status,” Stellin writes, “Mr. Lynch’s packing light has nothing to do with fees, but with fear. In 2004, his checked luggage was lost 17 times.”

Let’s rewind that and read it one more time in slow motion, shall we. A man whose travel habits have “Nothing. To. Do. With. Fees.” is being quoted in a story that is about fees. So, the only relevant thing about him is that he thinks baggage-handling sucks.

And others agree. At the end of her story, as if reality was peaking out from behind the clouds of lousy reporting, Stellin finally quotes a few ungrateful deviants who—get this—are not so thrilled about paying more for the same crappy service. One guy now forks out hundreds of dollars a trip to ship his heavy travel bags with FedEx. The airline bag fees are far cheaper, but the service is poor and unreliable. A married couple say that, even though they have elite status and can check bags for free, they carry-on because checking them is “a nightmare.” And a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants informs Stellin that cabin crews have had to work harder to accommodate the uptick in carry-on luggage.

So, basically, everybody that Stellin talked to, except the airlines, complained about bag fees and baggage handling services. Yet the headline of her story is still that people are “living” with the fees and possibly even “enamored” of them.

Hogwash (and you know which word I’d rather use). The only thing that kept me sane after reading Stellin’s bilge was a wonderfully nostalgic column on the Times’s opinion page from Ann Hood, an author who was a T.W.A. flight attendant for eight years. In it, she bemoans the frustrations of holiday travel and writes poignantly about a bygone era “when to fly was to soar. [And] The airlines, and their employees, took pride in how their passengers were treated.”

I know what she means. Journalism used to be more helpful, too.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.