Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

They wouldn't charge for carry-on luggage -- would they?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
July 14, 2013 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Bob Greene says some have talked about adding a carry-on fee, and at least one airline has done it
Bob Greene says some have talked about adding a carry-on fee, and at least one airline has done it
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Businesses exist to make profit. But would airlines stoop to charging for carry-ons?
  • At least one small carrier does, he says. Such a business move insults customers
  • He says Chicago bank once charged $3 to bank with a teller. They had to drop fee
  • Greene: For exasperated public, "We don't charge you to carry your bag" can seem a bargain

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights"; and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- Businesses exist to make a profit.

That's why they're businesses.

But, in their quest to make money, there are certain invisible lines they should be careful about crossing.

Making a profit is one thing. Going over the line and insulting your customers is another.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

It's the kind of thing that can put a business out of business.

Almost every airline has been charging passengers to check bags for quite a while now. When the fees were first instituted, there was considerable grumbling, but travelers have become accustomed to it, even if they still don't much like it.

Executives who run the airlines know that passengers will always flock to a low fare. That's the primary reason the airlines began charging to check bags: Operating an airline is tremendously expensive, and to keep the basic ticket price as low as possible, the revenue had to be made up somewhere. Fees to change reservations, fees for meals, fees for early boarding, fees for pillows and blankets, fees for seats with a little extra legroom. . . .

Reporter Susan Carey of the Wall Street Journal recently wrote that "airlines are likely to keep looking for new ways to nickel-and-dime customers on formerly free items." She quoted George Hobica, an airline industry consumer advocate, as saying that "he wouldn't be shocked if big carriers eventually adopted fees for carry-on luggage."

That's not a typo. Fees for carrying on bags, not checking them.

Now, that could never really happen, right? That's just speculation, isn't it?

But in fact, there is already precedent in the U.S. aviation industry. Low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines charges its passengers a fee for their carry-on bags; based on when and where they purchase their tickets, the fee ranges from $25 to $50 per carry-on bag.

On its website, Spirit says that to provide "ultra-low basic fares," it gives its passengers "freedom to choose only the extras they value."

If the price wars continue to escalate, would the major airlines ever dare to tell their passengers that carrying their clothes along with them on a trip is an "extra" feature of flying for which the customers should be expected to pay an additional fee?

Because that's what the choice would come down to. If you buy a ticket and are told that you have to pay more to check your bags, and that if you don't check your bags you also have to pay more to carry them with you, your only alternative, if you object, would be to leave at home any clothes except the ones you are wearing.

That's where the invisible line between trying to make a profit, and insulting your customers, comes in.

More than a decade ago, First Chicago Corp., which became Bank One Corp., decided that it would be a bright idea to charge customers a fee -- $3 -- every time those customers interacted with a teller.

What is the future of aviation?
Touring Dubai's record-breaking airport
Don't get hacked on vacation

Banks were already charging fees to use ATMs -- people getting cash from the machines were paying a convenience fee.

But then First Chicago instituted the rule that, if customers with less than a certain amount of cash in their accounts went to a teller window, the conversation and transaction with the teller would cost them that $3. Customers with whom I spoke at the time said that even when they were making deposits, they would be charged for handing over their own money.

To some customers, that constituted robbery -- by the banks. There are a few things in this world, even in the world of business, that people should not be expected to pay for. When you walk into a bank, no matter what, dealing with a teller should be free. During the extensive public and media conversation over the issue, I expressed the opinion that any bank that charges any of its customers a penny to interact with a teller doesn't deserve to have any customers.

First Chicago became Bank One, and installed a new top man who had not made the original decision, but had inherited it. He was a fellow by the name of Jamie Dimon, who has, of course, since moved on to bigger things: As chairman, president and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Dimon is one of the most powerful and influential financial figures in the world.

Back when he was newly at Bank One, he called me, saying he wanted to explain the business rationale for the teller fee. If you should ever unexpectedly receive a phone call from Jamie Dimon, you will immediately recognize (at least I did) that he is smarter than you, that he is 100 % certain that his position is the correct position, and that he is confident that he can persuade you to come around to his side.

But, world-class persuasiveness notwithstanding, in the case of teller fees the policy was destined ultimately to fail, because it crossed that mythical line: It insulted the customers. Two years after that conversation, Bank One announced that it was dropping the fee. One of its top executives told a reporter: "Why have it? I wasn't here when we started it. I really don't understand why we'd have it."

(Yet, as some readers already are thinking, there are banks around the country that have figured out new ways to charge for dealing in person with tellers without using the label "teller fee." It usually shows up on the monthly statement, under some arcane heading. The desire to make that extra buck never seems to end.)

Will you eventually be paying to carry your bag onto a plane? Southwest Airlines has garnered a lot of good will, and a lot of business, by holding out against the movement to charge for checked bags -- Southwest still checks the first two bags for free. JetBlue doesn't charge for the first checked bag. If some major carriers announce that they are instituting a fee for carry-ons, the best counteroffensive will likely come from one or more of their competitors, who may choose to proclaim:

"Come fly with us. We don't charge you to carry your own bag."

For the beleaguered traveling public, that may even sound like a victory.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT