Southwest's Bag Fee Muddle

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Southwest Airlines issued a press release today about its phase-in of full connectivity with the network of its AirTran Airways subsidiary. The completion of that phase-in, which will allow the booking of single-ticket itineraries involving flights on both carriers, still is on track for April, as Aviation Week has previously reported. Five AirTran markets were added on Jan. 26 in the first phase, and another 39 will be added on Feb. 25 in the second. But what interested me more in the Feb. 14 press release is how Southwest is handling the bag fees.

Southwest, as almost everyone knows by now, does not charge for the first or second checked bag. But AirTran still does. In mid-December, when asked how this difference would be handled on single-ticket itineraries, Southwest said it would treat customers differently depending on where they make the booking: Anyone who booked a trip via Southwest that includes an AirTran flight segment would not pay the fee; anyone who booked a trip via AirTran that includes a Southwest segment would pay the fee.

Now that the integration is phasing in, however, Southwest has changed the plan. Perhaps they realized that the point-of-booking plan would drive customers away from the AirTran website. Why book there and pay more? Whatever the reason, the new rule is this:  Fees for the first and second checked bag will be waived for any itinerary purchased through an AirTran channel that includes a Southwest segment. Of course, there also will be no fee if booking the two-airline itinerary via Southwest.

All other fee charges, however, will be based on the fee structure for the carrier with which the customer makes the booking.

Got all that? Of course, the simplest thing to do would be to drop AirTran's fee for the first two bags--or add the fee for Southwest--to make the policy consistent. Southwest--apart from some one-time wavering in mid-December--still insists it is going to drop AirTran's fees for the first and second bag by the time all of its aircraft are converted to Southwest and the brand disappears. But it appears Southwest does not want to give up the revenue the fee generates in the interim, no matter how muddled the application of the fee will be.

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