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American says bag fees affect few passengers this summer

American Airlines is trying to soothe concerns that its new $15 fee for the first checked bag will mean chaos at airports during the busy summer travel season.

The Fort Worth-based airline said Thursday that the fee won’t apply to most passengers flying this summer. And the carrier is deploying new technology, more employees, and a strict carry-on policy at airports to ensure smooth operations.

“Some people are concerned that this could be a chaotic process,” said Mark DuPont, the airline’s vice president of airport service planning. “But it’s been well thought out, and there’s been a lot of planning and strategy involved.”

The fee, $15 each way for the first bag a passenger checks, applies to tickets purchased on or after June 15.

Last month, American began charging $25 fee for the second checked bag.

The new charges are an attempt to help offset the rising cost of jet fuel, which is devastating the airline industry’s finances. American is projected to spend $3 billion more on fuel this year than in 2007. Most analysts predict the airline will lose more than $1.5 billion this year, or about $4.1 million a day.

DuPont pointed out that about 75 percent of summer travelers have already bought their tickets, so they won’t have to pay the fee. He also noted that many travelers are exempted, including anyone flying on an international itinerary, elite members of American’s frequent flyer plan, travelers flying on full-fare tickets, and first- and business-class travelers.

“When you factor all of that in, only about 25 percent of our customers will be impacted by the new policy,” he said.

Still, that means tens of thousands of American passengers will be affected every day, most of them leisure travelers. Many fliers have worried that the fee will spur an influx of carry-on luggage, which could slow down security screening, complicate boarding and make it difficult to find space in aircraft luggage bins.

DuPont said the airline is ready for the change at all areas of the airport:

  • At the curb: American is eliminating its $2 fee to check bags at curbside, in the hopes that it will spur more customers to check their bags before even entering the terminal. Curbside agents will be able to process the baggage check-in fee, so passengers can go right to security.
  • In the terminal: Automated check-in kiosks will alert passengers of the baggage fee and can accept payment from credit cards. The kiosks will also tell fliers if they are exempt from the charge. Employees at the counter can also accept cash payment.
  • At security: American will have employees monitoring customers carry-on bags to ensure that just one carry-on and one small item are being taken through the checkpoint. Passengers with too many items, or bags too large to carry on, will be assisted in checking their luggage.
  • At the gate: Employees will again monitor carry-on bags to make sure passengers are following the rules. If the airplane runs out of overhead space, travelers can check their carry-on bags at the gate without charge. Passengers who bring oversized luggage to the gate, however, will have to pay the fee to check the items.
  • On the plane: Flight attendants will make sure passengers are putting small items under their seats, and helping passengers put bags correctly into overhead bins so they don’t take up too much space.
  • At home: American is working on upgrading its Internet site to allow passengers to pay the baggage fee if they check in online. That service is not yet available, but should be an option eventually.
  • TREBOR BANSTETTER, 817-390-7064