New Interline Baggage Rules Make Sense

By | November 26, 2012

Earlier this month, Janice Hough at Consumer Traveler wrotethat coming anti-consumer “interline” baggage rules were worse than baggage fees. With all respect to Ms. Hough, who is a travel agent, in this regard, we believe she is wrong, although we can understand her point of view.

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Let’s go over the issue. Interline baggage refers to a bag thru-checked from one airline onto another carrier. Many discount carriers have traditionally not signed interline baggage agreements with other airlines, as a money-saving measure.  JetBlue, for example, started out this way, but saw the advantage of partnering up, and now does a great deal of interlining.

Ms. Hough’s article was prompted by an October 25th press release by Delta Air Lines. Delta will no longer thru-check baggage onto a separately issued ticket. For all airlines, thru-checking of baggage was a courtesy if the other flight was not on the same ticket. By making this policy official, Delta joins the ranks of many other carriers who have made this practical decision. US Airways made this decision back in August, other airlines have had such a policy for years.

From the airline perspective, this courtesy was problematic and a logistics issue. For one, international regulations dictate that the last carrier a bag was checked onto is responsible for dealing with the passenger in the event the bag was lost. Now, imagine you are the airline who never received a bag from Delta, never were on a ticket with Delta, but suddenly you had to handle a baggage claim for a bag you know nothing about.

Industry policy is that the carrier taking excess baggage fees gets to keep them, so the airline Delta just checked the bag onto is losing revenue. Part of this issue is also sparked by recent DOT and IATA regulations. We discussed IATA Resolution 302 and the DOT’s version of it in a recent article. Basically, the carrier checking you in gets the money, but the baggage rules are those of the Most Significant Carrier.

The DOT regulation refers to the itinerary, not the ticket. So, once an airline thru-checks your bags onto other flights, the flights the bags have been checked onto are now subject to the original rule, even though the second, or even third airline that the bags have been checked onto knows nothing of the original flight, airline, or its rules.

The Most Significant Carrier(MSC) is usually the first international carrier on the ticket, but not necessarily. The full definition is a bit more involved, but the rules were designed to have a single set of rules apply to an entire journey, which is a consumer-friendly measure designed to eliminate a lot of confusion.

If you have a single ticket with multiple airlines, your baggage will be subject to a single set of baggage rules, and all luggage will be thru-checked. However, Delta Air Lines and many other carriers, Virgin Atlantic, Hawaiian, US Airways, etc. will no longer send your bags over to an airline that is not issued on the same ticket.

This also causes one consumer problem often caused by travel agents. Travel agents often issue multiple tickets on a single reservation in their system…so while the passenger believes they have one single itinerary, they actually have multiple ones that appear to be one. This allows the airlines to see the whole picture, but they are still under no obligation to thru-check luggage.

We tend to take Delta’s advice, under its new policy. If a travel agent sells you a trip that includes multiple tickets:

  • They should advise you that you will need to claim and recheck your baggage
  • They should ensure you have sufficient time to do this, as recommended connection times are based on baggage being thru-checked
  • They should inform you that the airlines are not responsible for delays, cancellations, or even schedule changes in advance of travel that result in a missed connection to a separately ticketed flight.

If you want the best protection you can get, you should have your entire connecting itinerary issued as a single ticket. Sometimes this costs more money, which is usually because some airlines will not let their lower fares be sold on a ticket with another airline, which is a completely different issue.

It may be inconvenient to the consumer, and not as friendly a gesture, but it is fair. If you issue a business class ticket that allows for two or three bags, and separately buy an economy ticket that allows none, the second airline is forced to carry three bags, whereas if you came to their counter with them, it would cost you a few hundred dollars in fees.

.And consumers demanding that airlines be a party to this seems unfair as well. We don’t like baggage fees any more than anyone else, and we think that some of the numbers are higher than they should be, but no airline should be forced to take on the responsibility of transferring or receiving baggage from another airline without agreement and without the compensation that it advised the passenger he or she would be subject to at the time of booking.