It's time a carrier guaranteed baggage

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Tom RockneI started at Northwest Airlines' district sales office in Chicago on March 15, 1982. The following May, along with all other management personnel, I "volunteered" to work the baggage line as Northwest weathered a strike. I didn't get to choose the location of my assignment. I went to Detroit.

This was in the days of some printed and many handwritten bag tags. We sales types knew most of the codes. Those we didn't, we guessed or simply sent the bags to Cleveland. Penmanship also had an impact. When the rushed agent at the ticket counter scrawled ORF (Norfolk, Va.) on the tag, we novices sometimes read the more frequent ORD (Chicago O'Hare).

A colleague was dyslexic and really was challenged with San Diego (SAN) and Orange County (SNA). I think he read them as the same -- "Southern California" -- and they simply were loaded on the next departing flight. If we saw anything related to Europe, we started the bag out on the nonstop to Boston, as that's where most of Northwest's Europe service departed. We simply trusted our geography.

I have a full night's series of stories on the prowess of my and my compatriots' quickly developed expertise. One or two of those bags might still be in the Delta system today or making another lap at the bag carousel in Fargo. Oh, yes, bottom line: I know a little something about baggage.

Later at Northwest, I was on the Chicago end of a promotion by which Northwest sought to expand its share between Minneapolis and Chicago by guaranteeing on-time arrivals on hourly flights and rewarding clients with bonus Free Flight Plan credits if the flight was late. It garnered attention and moved some share.

A guarantee puts some skin in the game and creates a bit of a game that all passengers enjoy playing. If I recall correctly, the Transportation Department considered a flight to be on time if it was less than 15 minutes late per the published schedule. I recall passengers wanting the plane to arrive about 20 minutes after the scheduled arrival, so it would be late but they were not truly inconvenienced. In fact, I was on more than one flight where the cheers went up as the cockpit announced we were that perfect 16 minutes late. High fives all around. Those Free Flight Plan certificates were printed as fast as counterfeit 20s, and it seemed to be good public relations all the way around.

Now, with baggage fees rising (the noteworthy exception being Southwest), it's time for the carriers, or at least one carrier, to separate from the pack.

As carriers probe for the breaking point on baggage fees, it might be time for an airline to step forward with a baggage guarantee. Yes, it would expose the carrier to a limited payback to clients, but it could be a great point of differentiation in the battle for share, as well.

And remember: Southwest says its no-fee stance is earning it support. How about a money-back guarantee? If you are not an elite frequent flyer, and thus you paid for your checked baggage, any bags that did not arrive with you on the same flight would entitle you to have your baggage fees fully refunded to the credit card you used for payment.

Additionally, the carrier's current baggage-recovery program, including delivery of delayed bags, emergency expenses, etc., would remain in place.

If you are an elite flyer of that particular carrier, and thus presumably did not have to pay any baggage fee, you would be awarded mileage if your bag did not arrive with you. Something like 2,000 bonus miles per bag for the Silver designees, right up to 10,000 miles per bag for those very important Plutonium and Kryptonite cardholders. Put up or pay up.

C'mon. The allotted completion times on all stage lengths are longer than they used to be. And the automated baggage tag has helped to eliminate the need to decipher airport codes.

Besides, though no carrier has really trumpeted it, they've all sought to improve their baggage-handling systems in one way or another. They need to stand up and stand behind their abilities. Fair is fair.

Some carriers might feel they have customers just where they want them: in a box, because customers have no choice but to check bags and pay the fees. Schlepping carry-ons from terminal to terminal or between gates literally miles apart is too much of a hassle. If it's a trip of any length, limiting oneself to a carry-on is just not an option. And finally, overhead space on those ubiquitous regional jets is tiny, and, frankly, far too much is getting carried aboard now and should be policed more.

It's time for one of the major carriers to take the lead here and make a guarantee. The tracking should be very easy to accomplish, as those fees and frequent flyer status are both a matter of record. I think the first to move will reap the reward. Who is it going to be? Who is listening and responding to their very frustrated customers?

Tom Rockne, a 34-year industry veteran, is the principal at Tom Rockne Travel Resources. Contact him at [email protected].

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