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Stop those airlines before they charge again!

By 4.16.10

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If you watch baseball or basketball on television, you would have to have taken a pee break during every single commercial interruption to have missed the recent Southwest Airlines ad featuring a bunch of baggage handlers flashing their protruding bellies at a competitor's airplane.

The crew of rough-looking dudes screams at the other carrier's passengers while revealing their torsos, which bear painted-on letters spelling: BAGS FLY FREE. I bring up this ubiquitous commercial merely as a way of saying that, well, I wish one of my U.S. senators watched sports.

I really do. For if Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., were a sports fan, the message might have sunk in at some point during the NCAA men's basketball tournament or the first week of the 2010 Major League Baseball season that, hey, some airlines are not charging passengers to transport their bags. Other viewers might also have reached the equally obvious realization that not charging for bags is perceived by at least one airline to confer upon itself a competitive advantage so valuable that spending millions of dollars to advertise that point on national television would be a worthwhile investment. Alas, Sen. Shaheen is not as swift as the average American sports fan.

Nor, apparently, are five other U.S. senators. Led by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., six Senate Democrats were so outraged at hearing that Florida-based Spirit Airlines plans to start charging for some carry-on bags this August that they have sponsored a bill to tax those fees out of existence.

At a press conference, Schumer said, "It's time to draw the line. Airlines should not be allowed to charge for overhead luggage."

Schumer's indignation doesn't apply to luggage stored under the seat in front of you? Well, it probably does, but Spirit's fee doesn't. The airline intends to charge only for items stored in overhead bins. But don't let that little fact get in the way of a good politician-saves-the-helpless-woman anecdote. Shaheen didn't. FOX News reported that she said, "if you're a woman without pockets, you can't even bring that comb and toothbrush."

If Shaheen can't fit her comb and toothbrush under the seat in front of her, I don't want to know how she brushes her teeth.

The hygiene of U.S. senators aside, do we really need an act of Congress to protect us from airline baggage fees? An aware sports fan will have the right answer: no. Airlines compete on price all the time. They already compete based on baggage fees. If you don't want to pay baggage fees, fly an airline that doesn't charge them. If all the airlines serving your community charge baggage fees, complain. To the company, that is, not your senator. Companies tend to respond to consumer complaints.

It is worth noting that Spirit Airlines is a discount carrier. Like Southwest, Spirit charges less than $50 a ticket for some flights. For a $39.99 annual fee, customers can join Spirit's membership club and get access to one-way fees in the single digits. If you're paying $9 for a flight, you might not mind paying $30 to bring a bag.

But Schumer and his gang of airline fee police don't see it that way. They'd rather airlines charge you a higher fare and no fee. Schumer argues that airlines don't pay taxes on fees they apply to carry-on bags, so Spirit is really just trying to avoid paying taxes. Well, maybe. But Spirit's bag fee might also make the planes lighter, which would save fuel, which could save the airline millions of dollars, which could help keep ticket (and fuel) prices lower.

I think Schumer's real motivation is simply to tax the fees for the sake of collecting more money for Washington. He's pretending to be outraged on behalf of the American consumer to justify his new tax. But I think Shaheen is dim enough to actually believe that airline baggage fees are sinister abuses of the traveling public from which Congress must save us all.

Unaware of the economic foolishness of it, a lot of Americans will probably agree with her. Except for the smarter ones, of course. The ones who watch basketball and baseball.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.