I noticed that in U.S. airports, there is a charge of around $5 to use the luggage carts. Generally, the only place I see them free are in international arrivals; in departures and domestic arrivals, one has to pay. (After searching this site a little bit, this also appears to be the case for Canada.)

However, in many other airports, usually outside the U.S., luggage carts are provided free of charge, in all airport zones.

Why is this?

Given the answer to this question, I don't think this is too broad; the answer is mostly the same nationwide because of a federal law that restricts the fees airports can charge passengers as part of their airfare, to just $4.50 (as opposed to, say, Heathrow's nearly $52)

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    Because the US is the home of capitalism? Aug 28 '18 at 17:24
  • I've seen that occasionally in Europe as well. In Germany, I would even say that it is quite common. Some times you only have to pay a deposit, which you get back if you return the luggage cart to any of the collection points. Aug 28 '18 at 17:37
  • In the US, even in international arrivals, it becomes common that you need to pay with a credit card. It used to be free just because people usually don't have the required change/bills yet, but with credit cards now....
    – jcaron
    Aug 28 '18 at 18:03
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    Airports that allow free usage seem to have well-constructed barriers so that's impossible to take the carts beyond certain points. US airports generally don't have this type of setup. So, let them loose, and they're going to remain in the far reaches of the parking lots/structures or otherwise become 'lost'.
    – mkennedy
    Aug 28 '18 at 18:04
  • @Tor-EinarJarnbjo I've also seen a model here in the States where you get refunded a portion of your cart usage fee if you return the cart properly.
    – gparyani
    Aug 28 '18 at 18:27

Luggage carts in the USA are provided by a company called Smarte Carte. While the exact contract details are confidential, the airport lets Smarte Carte operate in return for a portion of the rental fees. Sometimes the carts are free in some areas such as international arrivals but for-pay in other areas.

If you really don’t want to pay, hang out around the taxi stand at the arrivals area and a departing customer will often give you one. Same goes for parking lots.

In other more civilized countries, luggage carts are seen as a basic amenity such as toilets and air conditioning and provided free of charge.

The economics of airports:

As @user71659 notes, this may be due to the economics of airports in the USA versus other countries. In the USA, passenger facility charges are capped to $4.50 per passenger, so the airports themselves may provide few amenities and may be poorly staffed. Other countries allow for much higher landing fees which allow for more amenities to be “free”.

For example, Tokyo Narita airport provides free carts and their passenger fee is ¥2630 per person, which is about US$25. Narita explicitly notes that its passenger fee is "used to cover the cost of maintaining and managing the lobbies...[and] to provide baggage carts...." (per comment from @user71659).

In contrast, San Francisco (SFO) charges for its Smarte Cartes in the domestic terminals and its passenger fee is the max US$4.50.

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    Aren't free luggage carts often available in European countries where pay toilets are fairly common, while pay toilets are quite rare (and sometimes illegal) in the US? Aug 28 '18 at 22:02
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    "Civilized" countries have much higher airport passenger fees ($52 per head at LHR vs. a FAA limit of $4.50, though there are other fees like landing and slots), so you've paid for those "free" carts whether you use them or not.
    – user71659
    Aug 28 '18 at 22:53
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    Also in the Narita link, it explicitly calls out the carts: "PSFC is used to cover the cost of maintaining and managing the lobbies... It is also used to provide baggage carts...."
    – user71659
    Aug 28 '18 at 23:26
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    @gparyani That's not true, airports, especially large ones, are profit generators for the owners, e.g. SFO turned an annual profit of $44M (Annual Service Payment). Like roadways, some infrastructure is paid for by a fuel and ticket excise tax that is collected federally, then returned back to the airports in grants. The lack of private airports is due to a belief that they are for the public good, like roadways.
    – user71659
    Aug 29 '18 at 2:31
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    @Zach Pay toilets are indeed increasingly common in Europe, but not inside airports. I have yet to encounter the first one.
    – RHA
    Sep 2 '18 at 20:41

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