Air Canada joins WestJet in hiking checked-bag fee. Could carry-on charges be next?

Air Canada joins WestJet in hiking checked-bag fee. Could carry-on charges be next?

It comes as no surprise to some industry experts: Air Canada hiked its first checked-bag fee by $5 for economy-type fares this week, shortly after WestJet made the same move. 

“It’s a business,” said Karl Moore, an associate professor with McGill University’s faculty of management. “You’re leaving money on the table if you don’t do it. There’s no outrage about it, so you can make some more money.”

It remains to be seen, however, if customers do express outrage once they’re hit with the higher bag fee.

Even if they don’t protest, airlines may face another consequence: more passengers jamming the cabin with carry-on to avoid paying for a checked-bag.

“I’ve seen fights break out among passengers for carry-on space,” said Fred Lazar, an associate professor of economics at York University who studies the industry.

New checked-bag fees

For travel booked after Feb. 27, Air Canada will now charge between $35 and $42 for the first checked bag for basic and standard economy fares in North America, the Caribbean, and Central America. 

WestJet also now charges between $35 and $42 for the first checked bag for economy fares booked after Feb. 14. 

Not long ago, all passengers on domestic flights got to check a bag for free. But that perk ended in 2014 when Porter AirlinesWestJet and Air Canada introduced a $25 checked-bag charge for cheaper fares. A decade later, that fee has climbed by at least 40 per cent.

WATCH | Man battles Air Canada over lost cellphone: 

Edmonton man battles Air Canada over lost cellphone | Go Public

Edmonton’s Olu Awoseyi has spent months trying to get Air Canada to either retrieve or replace his expensive new cellphone. An airline employee found it and claims to have placed it in a lost and found, but it disappeared. Awoseyi says the airline has given him the runaround ever since.

Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick told CBC News in an email that the airline upped its bag fees “to remain competitive.”

WestJet spokesperson Julia Brunet said in an email that bag charges allow the airline to “keep base fares lower for all travellers.”

But some industry experts warn that as checked-luggage fees rise, so do the number of passengers filling the cabin with carry-on. 

“If you’re charging for checked bags, you better start charging for carry-on,” said Lazar. “Otherwise, people are going to do the only logical thing, they’re going to shift from checked bags to carry-ons, which are free.”

A man putting a carry-on suitcase in the overhead compartment on a plane.
Some industry experts warn that as checked-luggage fees rise, so do the number of passengers filling the cabin with carry-on bags. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Lazar said too much carry-on is not only problematic for passengers, but also airlines.

“Many [flights] have been delayed because there simply is not enough room for the carry-on bags, coats on the flight. So they have to, at the last minute, check a number of bags.”

Some airlines already charge for cabin baggage including Flair Airlines, and Porter when passengers buy its lowest, basic fare. In late 2022, Sunwing introduced a $25 charge for the service.

When asked if they were considering carry-on charges, WestJet and Air Canada would only say that they have made no current changes to their policy of one free overhead bag. 

Too expensive to cancel a flight?

It’s not just baggage fees that are going up. Ultra low-cost carrier, Flair Airlines, also recently raised several other fees, including its change and cancellation charges, some of which have more than doubled. 

For example, Flair’s cancellation fee recently jumped 115 per cent to $84 per passenger per flight when cancelling a week or more in advance — so it costs $168 to cancel one round trip.

The charge took Flair customer Fernando Chicas by surprise when he contacted the airline to cancel a round trip flight for his family of four from Toronto to Abbotsford, B.C. in April.

“I was shocked,” said Chicas, who admits he didn’t read the fine print on Flair’s website before booking. 

“The reason why I saw them as a viable option is because I thought they would cater to people that are not making extravagant amounts of money.”

The Chicas family in a group photo.
Fernando Chicas, right, with his family clockwise: daughter Jazmine, wife Belén, and son Mikael. Chicas had to cancel his family’s Flair flight from Toronto to B.C. and won’t get anything in return. (Submitted by Fernando Chicas)

Chicas said a few weeks after he bought his non-refundable tickets, he realized he made a mistake when choosing the dates, and had no choice but to cancel the family’s trip. 

According to an online chat session viewed by CBC News, Flair informed Chicas that because the cost of his tickets (almost $600) totalled less than the cancellation fee ($672 as calculated by CBC News), he will get no travel credits for forfeiting a flight his family can’t take. 

“Very frustrated that they get my money for free,” said Chicas, who lives in Leamington, Ont. “It leaves the impression that an upfront, cheap cost sometimes is not the best option when it comes to spending your money.”

Flair Airlines told CBC News that its recent hikes in change and cancellation fees still align with its ultra-low-cost model. “By unbundling fares, customers pay only for what they need, not what they don’t,” said spokesperson Gabrielle Poirier in an email.

She also said that, for a fee, travellers can get “travelflex” which allows them to make flight changes without penalty. 

CBC News asked Transport Canada if it had any concerns about the plethora of fees that don’t show up in the advertised price for airfares. 

“As private companies, Canada’s air carriers are responsible for making their own business decisions, including how they … charge for optional services,” said Transport Canada spokesperson Hicham Ayoun in an email. 

In other words, it’s up to passengers to navigate the tricky world of added airline fees. 

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