US-Based Airlines Collected Over $4.1 Billion in Checked Bag Fees in 2016

May 4, 2017

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The figure on total checked bag fees collected by airlines in 2016 is out, and it’s quite jaw-dropping: about $4,177,135,000. This is up from the $3.8 billion in 2015, a jump of about 10%.

Interestingly, the rankings stayed almost exactly the same from 2015 to 2016, with only JetBlue leapfrogging Allegiant — due to the former’s continuing expansion and elimination of free first checked bags in July 2015.

This comes as debate still swirls around whether carriers should be required to disclose baggage fees prior to a customer purchasing airfare. Critics call this proposed rule just more regulation of the airlines, while proponents say travelers should be fully informed of the full cost of their flight — especially in the wake of more airlines adopting Basic Economy fares.

So, which airlines collected the most?

Rank Airline 2016 2015 % Increase
1 American $1,117,473 $1,125,846 -1%
2 Delta $872,419 $875,102 0%
3 United $690,404 $672,222 3%
4 Spirit $434,269 $288,711 50%
5 Frontier $306,792 $220,044 39%
6 JetBlue [#7 in 2015] $231,604 $142,710 62%
7 Allegiant [#6 in 2015] $177,329 $161,364 10%
8 Alaska $135,614 $112,815 20%
9 Hawaiian $82,400 $81,161 2%
10 Virgin America $64,289 $59,959 7%
11 Southwest $43,750 $43,636 0%
Other $20,792 $20,172 3%
All $4,177,135 $3,803,742 10%

Baggage fees by airline for 2016 and 2015. Revenue reported in thousands of US dollars. Data courtesy of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Legacy carriers saw almost none of the industry’s overall 10% increase in bag fees. Bag fee leader American Airlines collected fewer fees, in line with its 1.3% drop in passengers from 2015 to 2016. The legacy carriers still collectively charged 64% of the total bag fees ($2,680,296 combined) — down from over 70% in 2015 ($2,673,170 combined).

Meanwhile, the low-cost carriers continue to put up incredible growth — both in passengers served and bag fees. Fourth through eighth on the list all grew by double digits, as these airlines continue to take market share from the legacy carriers.

Want to avoid being part of this massive statistic? Let’s review the ways that you’re able to avoid or reimburse bag fees:

In This Post

Get a Co-Branded Credit Card

The easiest way to avoid checked baggage fees on most airlines is by having a credit card for the airline that you check bags on the most. Many carriers offer at least one free checked bag on at least one of their co-branded cards. Here’s the airline-by-airline breakdown of which cards will get you a free checked bag (or two):

  • American: Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard, Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard
  • Delta: Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, Gold Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express, Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express
  • United: United MileagePlus Explorer Card, United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card, United MileagePlus Club Card (first 2 bags), and United MileagePlus Club Business Card (first 2 bags)
  • JetBlue: JetBlue Plus Card and The JetBlue Business Card
  • Alaska: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card
  • Hawaiian: Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard

The baggage allowances vary across these cards, but each allows at least one free checked bag for the cardholder (sometimes only for domestic flights). Some cards offer free checked bags for others booked on your same itinerary, as well.

Unfortunately, some of the biggest bag fee collectors — Spirit Airlines (Spirit Airlines MasterCard), Frontier (Frontier Airlines World MasterCard) and Allegiant — have co-branded credit cards that don’t offer a free bag.

Fly Southwest

The last major airline to still offer complimentary checked bags is Southwest. Each passenger can check two free bags — including golf bags and skis — up to 50 pounds and total dimensions of 62 inches. Overweight, extra-large and additional bags will set you back $75 each — which likely account for most of Southwest’s $44 million in checked bag fees in 2016.

Wipe out Baggage Fees With a Credit Card Fee Reimbursement

Some premium credit cards offer travel fee credits that can be used toward airline fees such as baggage costs. These include the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card ($300 per year), the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card ($300 per year), Citi Prestige Card ($250 per year), The Platinum Card® from American Express ($200 per year) and the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express ($100 per year). If you weren’t able to avoid baggage fees otherwise, using a travel credit could be a great option.

Or, you can use points earned on your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, Bank of America® Travel Rewards Visa® credit card or Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard to get a statement credit for your baggage fees. However, you’ll likely want to pay for your bags when you purchase your flight if you plan on using miles from your Barclaycard Arrival Plus, as the minimum redemption is 10,000 points ($100).

Earn Elite Status

Easier said than done, but earning elite status on any of the top three bag fee-charging airlines — American, Delta and United — will earn you a free baggage allowance. Even base-level elite members (American Gold, Delta Silver and United Silver) are allowed to check one bag for free on domestic itineraries. Meanwhile, top-tier members can check up to three free checked bags.

Featured image courtesy of BrianAJackson via Getty Images.

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