INDUSTRY WATCH

Et Tu, JetBlue?

Last February, I wrote a story about the growing trend among airlines of nickel-and-diming their customers. Almost across the board, carriers had eliminated extras like free magazines, pillows, and meals, and at the same time they tacked on fees for curbside check-in and new standby procedures, as well as (surprise!) pillows and meals. One of the more annoying extra charges involved checked luggage: For decades, the standard had been that a passenger was allowed to check two pieces of luggage, each weighing up to 70 pounds. By early 2006, the standard had changed. Airlines had begun charging $25 fees for each checked bag weighing 51-70 pounds, and $50 for bags 71-100 pounds.

JetBlue was the lone holdout. The upstart airline continued to allow bags up to 70 pounds without charging extra. When researching the story, I spoke to a JetBlue representative, who told me the airline's reasoning for going against the grain: Simply put, 70 pounds per bag seemed fair. To me, JetBlue's less restrictive baggage policy, as well as its personal seatback TVs and spacious leather seats, set the airline apart from its competitors in a very good way. We gladly gave JetBlue a pat on the back in the story.

Which made the e-mail I received recently all the more disappointing: "As of October 1, 2006," it read, "each customer is now limited to two checked bags with the weight of each piece not to exceed 50 pounds." A bag weighing 51-70 pounds costs $20 extra; and bags 71-99 pounds tacks on $50. JetBlue folks I've spoken to say they were pained to make the change, but that it was necessary. After all, more weight on the plane means more fuel burned, and bigger costs incurred, during flights.

The funny thing is, JetBlue's policy shift comes at a time when fuel prices have been declining. In recent days, several airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, Qantas, Austrian Airlines, and KLM, have even lowered the fuel surcharges they'd been tacking onto flights.

The bigger issue I have with the luggage restrictions is that the airlines aren't concerned with bags weighing down their planes as much as they are with making a few extra bucks. Each passenger is allowed two bags weighing 50 pounds per piece, and therefore 100 pounds total. If a passenger checks only one bag weighing 55 pounds, it costs extra. On the other hand, a passenger checking two 45-pound bags doesn't have to pay a dime--even though this passenger's luggage weighs 35 pounds more than the person checking a single bag. A policy that would allow passengers to check up to 100 pounds of luggage in one, two, or even three bags seems much more reasonable to me. For years, JetBlue skeptics have proclaimed that as the carrier grew it would inevitably become more and more like every other airline. Is the prediction coming true? Besides the baggage change, JetBlue has quietly upped its highest-priced one-way flights from $299 to $399. JetBlue still stands out from the pack with its seatback TVs and (usually) reasonably priced fares, and overall I'm still a fan. I only hope that JetBlue doesn't lose sight of what drew customers to the airline in the first place: That its prices, service, and policies seemed decent and fair.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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