I paid my huge baggage fee, so no wonder I feel ripped off when the airline ruins my bag

There's a fine piece on AOL travel today by Jordan Simon about the ridiculous fees airlines charge on everything from booking to baggage. Granted, airlines had to do something to correct course after the dip in air travel following 9/11, the soaring cost of jet fuel and all that.

But now that travelers are back in flight and fuel costs have leveled, you'd think airlines would give customers a break. Well, that all depends on how you look at it.

On the one hand, as United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski told me, "Air fares are at a historic low, adjusted for inflation." And guess what? Urbanski is right about this; I remember paying about $150 to fly between Chicago and Philadelphia 15 years ago, a ticket price you can still land if you play your booking cards right.
But gone are the days of passenger perks such as airline food. (Hmm, now is that such a big loss?) And today, you absolutely must watch out for occluded baggage fees that United -- and most airlines, for that matter -- charge. Bring a third bag to check in on United and it'll set you back a whopping $125, as I learned flying home from LaGuardia last month. (Thankfully, a kindly United clerk cut the fee to $25 because I didn't know the policy.)

Why such exorbitant tariffs? Urbanski says that "the fees are there because resources are needed: extra fuel, extra manpower. And I strongly recommend that you call other airlines because the fees United charges are there across the board."

True, but it seems to me that across the board, all airlines could avoid the sticker shock phenomenon you're bound to meet at an airport if you don't read that policies carefully. Tell me, when was the last time you studied airline fine print?

The fees also take on a tinge of unfairness when an airline damages the bag you paid so much to check. This happened to me at LaGuardia on Nov. 14, when my backpack became the third bag because of carry-on restrictions. When it emerged at O'Hare, the shoulder straps were seared through--though the MacBook Pro inside, thank God, was just fine.

Baggage reps at United shrugged and told me United could not be held responsible for the damage because the bag had hanging straps -- even though I paid good money to get it on board.

Urbanski says that I -- and all travelers on United -- should report damaged bags via email or phone within 24 hours. The number: 1-800-221-6903. The e-mail: web-baggage@united.com.

"It should be fixed and we will fix it," Urbanski said of my snagged bag, though it's not such a huge deal that I'd feel cheated if it isn't. It's more the principle: A bag with a pay premium should emerge onto the carousel unharmed. And if it is, the problem needs to be addressed without delay.

That's what Urbanski promised me on behalf of all United passengers. Yet. I'm still concerned whether this system really works if a non-media type like Jane Jet-Setter finds her backpack damaged after paying that $125 fee. Will United do the right thing in Jane's theoretical case? I hope so, though all airlines seem to drag their feet at fixing the damage they do in the fast-paced world of baggage handling.

As for me, I'd just be happy if there were signs at the airport that said: "STOP! IF YOU HAVE A THIRD BAG TO CHECK IN, YOU'RE GONNA PAY $125. REPACK NOW WHILE THERE"S STILL TIME, OR VISIT FEDEX."

Wishful thinking, I know. "The [fee] information is on our Web site, and on the reservation there is information on the baggage policies. Also there is some signage at the airport," Urbanski said. (Where that signage is at LaGuardia, I couldn't tell you.)

I'd also be thrilled if United someday gets its Wi-Fi on every flight so I can surf while I soar. Soon, but not yet: "We have it some flights for users today, but we don't know when it will be on all flights," Urbanski said.

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