The frustrating struggle when you try to get your money back — and the new legislation that could help travelers.
Buried in the new bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration are a few sections addressing the fees that many of us pay to fly. And while the Senate and the House bills still differ a bit, one likely result is going to be this: The carriers are going to have to refund the fees you pay when your luggage isn’t on your flight and you have to wait a long time to get it.
Refunding those fees may not seem like a big deal, but airlines in the United States took in about $3 billion in fees for checked luggage last year. So plenty is at stake. And if you’ve ever tried to get your money back after an airline botched its baggage delivery, as I did recently, you’re acutely aware of the following facts:
■ Any attempt to reason with the airline begins with the discovery that it may have declared all baggage fees nonrefundable in nearly every circumstance.
■ A refund, if you get one, may come in the form of a voucher that requires you to fly that carrier again — and to remember to use it.
■ If you dispute the charge with your credit card company, you may run into resistance.
While the bill contains other improvements for traveling families, people in wheelchairs and others, those baggage fees are the ones that airlines have been charging for a longer time and are particularly noxious. If the bag doesn’t come spinning around the carousel, you shouldn’t have to pay, right?
Well, the airlines argue that they alone should get to answer that question. Their trade group, Airlines for America, contends that the bill, which has bipartisan support, overreaches. In the past 25 years, the industry has more than halved its rate of mishandled bags, which is now at 3.24 per 1,000 pieces of checked luggage, down from 6.24, according to Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman. “Customer service decisions are best left to the dedicated airline employees who interact with and receive feedback from their customers every day — not government,” he said.
Those decisions have led to the following result: In just a decade, the major American airlines have gone from taking in little in à la carte fees for things like baggage, early boarding and premium seating, to raking in $7.4 billion in 2015 alone, according to a study by the travel industry firms IdeaWorks and CarTrawler.
A healthy airline industry is a great thing. Still, are all these fees just a naked grab for profits, or merely an attempt to have passengers pay for only the services that they are actually using?
And if you did not get what you paid for, you ought to be persistent in your attempts to get the money back. Here’s how the process breaks down — and I mean that in every sense of the term.
HAGGLING WITH THE AIRLINE In December, my family and I checked some bags on a domestic Delta Air Lines flight and did not get them back until 30 hours later. It seemed as if a refund was in order, but it took some effort to get Delta agents to even acknowledge that there was a way to request one.
On its online form, Delta says it “may” elect to give you a “rebate” if 12 hours pass between the time you report the wayward bags and your receiving them. To start that process, Delta wants ticket numbers, baggage claim numbers and the file reference number it gives you when your bags don’t show up. You should have your paperwork in order.
And that “rebate?” If Delta grants one, you’ll get a voucher for future use on Delta. You know, the same airline that you’re super annoyed with for having left you with just your dirty winter clothes in a warm climate with no toothpaste and an infant to clothe. (We eventually bought more clothes, and Delta reimbursed us in full. At least we weren’t on Spirit, which reserves the right to “request” that you return the things you bought.)
You may forget you have that voucher, even if you are willing to fly Delta again. But you’d better not forget, because it expires in a year. Delta would not disclose the percentage of passengers who end up using these vouchers. The airline does give members of its frequent flier program 2,500 frequent flier miles if they have to wait more than 20 minutes at the carousel after a domestic flight, but only if they know to ask for it via another online form and do so within three days.
DISPUTING FEES WITH YOUR CARD COMPANYHaving given Delta an opportunity to fix the problem only to find that I could not get my money back, I called up American Express, my credit card issuer, to dispute the baggage fee charges. The dispute process can be an incredibly powerful tool for aggrieved consumers, and you can learn more about it in my 2013 column on the topic.
When I got a representative on the phone, however, she informed me that I was not allowed to dispute this fee. Why not? Because of an agreement that the airline has with American Express, she said.
This seemed unfair, but I’d heard similar reports from consumers over the years about other card companies. According to Molly Faust, a spokeswoman for American Express, the company doesn’t have much flexibility, given how airlines set up the fees in the first place. In the so-called contract of carriage, the airlines can and do declare many fees nonrefundable. When that happens, and the service is rendered, according to Ms. Faust, American Express tries to educate cardholders about how the fee rules work and generally won’t be able to get them a refund.
Despite the insistence of my American Express representative on the phone, Delta’s contract of carriage does not describe its baggage fees as nonrefundable, though those for United, Spiritand American do. Delta does, however, describe other fees this way. Perhaps that’s why, after a lot of badgering from me, the American Express phone representative eventually filed my dispute after all. Ultimately, it was successful. Most people would not be that persistent, though.
Spokeswomen for Capital One, JPMorgan Chase and Citibank all said that they allowed airline fee disputes. If you’ve had a different experience, please let me know in the comments.
TURN TO WASHINGTON Depending on what happens to the new legislation, it’s possible that some of the bag fee angst will go away. The Senate version of the bill calls for airlines to automatically refund the baggage fees when travelers do not get their luggage within six hours of their arrival on a domestic flight or 12 hours on an international one. The House versiongives a 24-hour deadline, and the delivery of the refund would not be automatic.
Both passages are pretty generous to the airlines. Baggage service used to be free. Now that it generally isn’t, should they really get a free pass if your bags come on the next flight four hours later and you have to deal with the logistics of making sure they get to you?
Still, the automatic nature of the Senate proposal is a big deal. If it does become automatic, it will no longer be your responsibility to type numbers into web forms. Instead, the refund would just happen. Also, it would be an actual refund on your card statement. Staff members working on the bill say that vouchers will not be allowed. Good riddance.
MEANWHILE, MAKE THESE MOVES It will probably be a year or two before these provisions take effect. So while you’re waiting, you could try a couple of things to avoid baggage fees if checking your luggage is a necessity.
First, fly Southwest. It doesn’t charge fees for the first two checked bags. If you have elite status on an airline, you can generally avoid fees that way, and many carriers have credit card-issuing partners that in exchange for the card’s overall annual fee, will offer free luggage checking of some sort.
But if you’re stuck paying fees on a carrier that gives you grief when the bags don’t come on time, dispute those charges and dispute them often. Another thing that gets the carrier’s attention is your filing a complaint with the Department of Transportation.
If enough of us protest just once or twice a year, the airlines may get so sick of responding that they will automate refunds, whether our elected representatives force them to or not.