Actually, this is a new policy. In the past all the major airlines have allowed each passenger a total of three pieces of luggage (within the weight/size restrictions), plus a personal item like a purse or briefcase, reading material, food for onboard consumption, a camera, whatever.
If I had three pieces of luggage, I could check one and carry two onboard (prior to 9/11), or I could check two and carry one onboard, or I could check all three and not have to carry anything onboard.
What's different now is that although I am still allowed a total of three pieces of luggage (excluding my small personal item), I don't have the option of checking that third piece for free. I must carry it onboard unless I want to pay $40.00 extra.
Normally, this is not a problem because I don't usually have a lot of luggage.
Although I can't find the thread over at Flyertalk, I know that AA started this policy a couple of months ago, and I believe they charge you $50.00 if you are checking a third piece of luggage.
I remember reading that particular thread about a week before I took a 12 day trip on AA to SFO to visit friends. It gets chilly in San Francisco at night, so I tend to take a jacket and pullover sweaters, etc, that fill up a suitcase quick. Plus I know that I'll be doing a lot of shopping in Chinatown, etc, so when I take my annual Escape-the-Texas-heat trip to SFO, I usually do take three bags.
I would have preferred to check all three pieces of luggage and just carry on my small personal item (A small bag that holds my camera, film, keys, paperback, wallet, cigarettes and lighter), therefore freeing up some overhead bin space for those who do like to carry on more, but I didn't have that choice. Actually, I did have that choice, I just didn't want to pay an extra $50.00 for the priveledge, so I ended up dragging one of my heavy carry-ons around DFW during my three hour layover.
FWIW, Southwest does still allow you to check all three peices of luggage without additional charge, but then you are only allowed to take onboard your small personal item.
I can sort of understand why the airlines did this, though. For one thing, allowing you to only be able to check two pieces for free cuts down on the amount of bags the baggage handlers have to deal with. For another thing, under the old system, I've seen passengers "work the system".
They would get the person dropping them off at the airport to stand off to the side with one of their carry-ons, and proceed to go check in at the counter and check their three pieces, and then retrieve the fourth carry-on from their friend, and possibly a personal item, too, and proceed through the checkpoint. As long as the friend stays out of sight, the person checking in the passenger at the counter thinks the passenger has a grand total of three pieces of luggage, even though the friend is holding a fourth piece. It was a sneaky way to be able to take a fourth piece of luggage on your trip at no extra charge.
Having said all that, I still don't like the new policy and will continue to fly Southwest if I have more than two pieces of luggage, especially if my trip involves a connection.
I know for a fact that Alaska Airlines, Northwest Airlines and Continental Airlines only permit TWO checked bags, one carryon, and one personal item.
That's interesting, and something I didn't realize. I checked some other airlines free checked baggage policies and found out that, American, Alaska, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, Spirit and Vanguard (before thye filed for Chapter 11) all only permitted 2 free pieces of checked luggage. With the exception of Spirit and Vanguard, these are supposedly the full service carriers.
Air Tran, Southwest, JetBlue, and Frontier ( all "no frills" carriers) do give you the option of checking that third piece for free, as well as US Airways, Midwest Express and America West.