Northwest to Impliment Bag-Check Fee

Like the convenience of checking your luggage at curbside with a Northwest Airlines skycap? Well, that may soon cost you $2 a bag.

Eagan-based Northwest, which has lost about $3 billion on its operations since the start of 2001, is out to save money just about any way it can. Like United Airlines, American and other ailing carriers, it has been slashing its costs by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Northwest has even pulled pillows and pretzels from its planes. Now, it's eyeing a baggage-check fee.

About 15 percent of Northwest passengers use the skycap baggage-check service where it is available; it handles some 4 million bags a year.

Noting the success United has had with its recent policy of charging a couple of bucks for skycap baggage checks in Seattle, Northwest is running its own trial in that city this month to see how passengers react to paying for the service.

Northwest also will be looking to assess its possible savings and the impact the fee has on baggage checks at self-service terminals and ticket counters.

Historically, skycap baggage checks have been free, but it's customary to tip the baggage handlers. Unionized skycaps at Northwest make about $12.50 an hour.

Most passengers would be perturbed about paying for curbside baggage checks, said Bobby De Pace, president of District 143 of the International Association of Machinists, which represents most Northwest ground workers.

"I don't think it will work," he said. "People won't pay."

If it does work, it would cost skycaps their tips, De Pace added. "And that's how they make their money."

At Northwest's Twin Cities, Detroit and Memphis, Tenn., hub airports, IAM members provide skycap services. At other airports, the service is provided by outside vendors, which typically pay less than union wages.

In Seattle, United says 30,000 passengers paid for skycap baggage checks from last November to this past February. And 97 percent said they would pay for the service again, said United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski.

United has since expanded the charge to other airports, including Boston, Oakland, Calif., Tampa, Fla., Chicago-Midway and Portland, Ore.

"The $2 fee is in lieu of a gratuity," Urbanski said. But travelers may tip if they wish.

"This is a way to help us reduce costs, not to generate revenue," Urbanski added.

In another effort to control its costs, Northwest pulled Newsweek, Glamour and other magazines from all its flights and passenger clubs starting this week. The only magazine left will be Northwest's in-house publication, WorldTraveler.

The vendor that supplied magazines to Northwest wanted $565,000 a year to continue the service, the airline said. Northwest would not say what it paid for the service.

American Airlines ditched all but in-house magazines in the fall of 2001. Since March, it also has been experimenting in Seattle with charging $2 per bag for curbside skycap bag checks.