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
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT