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Frontier 'enhances service' with new carry-on bag fee

There’s a new front in the battle over space in the overhead bins — and for the hearts and minds of fliers. On Wednesday, Frontier Airlines announced it will begin charging passengers a fee of $25 to $100 for using the overhead bin if they book their tickets anywhere other than the airline’s website.

“Frontier’s most loyal customers have made it very clear that finding overhead bin space for carry-on bags has become unacceptably difficult,” said the airline in a statement. “In response, Frontier will be introducing a charge for carry-on bags for customers buying Basic fares through third party sites.”

Conversely, those who book at FlyFrontier.com will be able to use the overhead bins at no charge, as they always have. How that constitutes a “service enhancement” is unclear. (Bags that fit under the seat will continue to be allowed at no charge, regardless of where tickets are booked.)

“What they’re saying is if you work with us, we’ll work with you,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst with Hudson Crossing. That, he says, should help the airline differentiate itself from other low-cost carriers, such as Spirit and Allegiant, both of which charge for bin-bound carry-on bags regardless of where passengers buy their tickets.

What is, perhaps, left unsaid is that the move is also part of a larger, ongoing battle between the airlines and the Global Distribution Systems (GDS) that supply airfares to third-party sites, including travel agents, corporate travel departments and online travel agencies.

The fees the airlines pay the GDSs add up to millions of dollars per year and getting passengers to book directly on airline sites is the subject of multiple industry initiatives and much debate behind the scenes.

“This is just another way that airlines are trying to bypass the middleman and it makes sense,” said George Hobica of AirfareWatchdog.com. “Airlines hate paying fees to other sites to send them traffic. They've tried offering bonus frequent flier miles, lower fares, seat assignments and other incentives, and now this.”

Whether other airlines will follow suit is a matter of debate. Hobica, for one, believes others U.S. carriers will adopt similar fees in an effort to cut costs and boost customer loyalty.

Harteveldt, on the other hand, believes they won’t although he doesn’t discount the possibility of other twists on the concept, such as offering lower fares for customers who choose of their own accord not to bring a carry-on bag onboard.

“It’s one thing to tell people you’re going to charge them a fee — that generates a negative response,” he told NBC News. “It’s another for an airline to say you can choose to bring your bag on the plane or you can save more money if you’d prefer not to.”

In the meantime, the battle over the overhead bins will continue for at least a bit longer. Frontier doesn’t expect to implement its new fee until this summer with an official date expected to be announced later this spring.

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.