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One night last week I found myself watching the NBC Nightly News—a rare occurrence, because I am not yet old. The lead story was about how American Airlines was going to start charging a $15 fee for each checked bag. Grumbling! Populist outrage! What will these dang companies do next?! It became clear at that early moment that despite the economic necessity of the move, American was going to get absolutely slammed in the court of public opinion. And now the verdict is in: they did!

The company had a big PR plan in place for the announcement: talking points, economic facts, carefully crafted statements. Which was all a big waste of time, because people are going to be pissed about losing their sacred bag-checking rights, high oil prices be damned:

"We understood that consumers would be frustrated with another fee," said Mike Flanagan, senior VP at Weber Shandwick, American's public-relations shop of record. "Precisely for that reason; we did our best to communicate the full impact that oil is having on our business." Predictably, the public had little sympathy...

Regardless of American's honesty, consumers were still angered by the fee. "It's only a matter of time before airlines begin charging for our carry-on bag," wrote one commenter on Chris Elliott's travel blog. Blogs such as Sky Talk gauged traveler reaction, including a flier who said that "they're trying to nickel and dime us for too many things."

Hey, Joe Public, you're right: It is only a matter of time before they start charging you for carry on bags. Along with food and everything else on planes these days. The alternative is to raise ticket prices. But of course, the airlines can't do that because of... populist outrage!

As hard as it is to sympathize with the airline industry, they deserve a little sympathy. They were the victim of an easy cheap shot by the national media, which cried "Not another price increase!" while knowing full well that revenue needs to go up one way or another. American's only mistake here was being the first one to put in this fee. Now that they've broken the cherry, watch as all their fellow airlines fall in line.

The littlest victims in all this: the poor flacks.

[Ad Age]