ON her US Airways flight from New Orleans to Washington this month, Corinne Marasco, a science writer from Kingstowne, Va., was forced to check her small wheelie bag at the gate because there was no room left in the overhead bins. It didn’t matter that the gate agents kept reminding passengers that they were limited to one item of carry-on luggage, plus one personal item; the overhead bins were stuffed with shopping bags, knapsacks and pieces of luggage that clearly didn’t pass the size test.
“I saw a woman with a roll-on suitcase, a medium-size tote bag and a pocketbook board the plane, and no one asked her to check the suitcase,” Ms. Marasco said. The experience, she added, was so infuriating, “I was sorely tempted to start emptying out the bin over my seat so I could fit my suitcase in.”
Anyone who has tried to cram a bag into an overhead bin knows the feeling. Sure, plenty of passengers want to take their bags onboard these days: who wants to wait by the carousel or risk having their luggage lost? But when you follow all the rules, like taking one small bag and packing your toiletries in three-ounce bottles, only to find there’s no room left in the overhead bins — well, it’s enough to push most fliers over the edge.
After the Transportation Security Administration began cracking down on liquids and gels in carry-on luggage last summer, fliers experienced a brief respite from crowded overhead bins. Many passengers chose to check bags rather than deal with the security hassle. Airport luggage systems, however, couldn’t handle the volume, and the rate of mishandled bags skyrocketed. Now the carry-on pendulum has swung the other way.
For starters, travelers have gotten used to the new carry-on restrictions and are leaving their shampoos and other liquids behind so they can take their bags onboard again. New fees for checked luggage are also contributing. In May, United Airlines, US Airways and Delta will begin charging $50 round trip for a second piece of luggage, and low-cost carriers like Skybus and Spirit Airlines already charge passengers $10 to check even one bag on a flight.
And then there’s the general overcrowding of planes. Most planes are now flying at near capacity, and more people, of course, means more carry-ons.
The turf war for carry-on space has led to some rather uncivilized behavior. Passengers have been spotted hiding fanny packs under their jackets and jostling in line to be first to board. Confrontations in the aisles over bin space have come close to fistfights.
“I have seen perfectly healthy people feign a limp to get on first with the special needs people to get overhead baggage space,” said Richard Kemmer, an energy consultant from southern Utah.
Such behavior is not only selfish but can also cause delays. “When people try to sort of go around the standard of what is reasonable to put onboard, it ends up creating problems for everybody,” said Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants. “It takes away from the flight attendants’ time, from predeparture activities they could and should be doing, instead of helping manipulate an oversize bag into a small bin.”
The carry-on wars have gotten so out of hand that at least one airline has begun to crack down on rule-breakers. This month Delta Air Lines began requiring that all carry-on items be tagged with a special approval tag before passengers board any international flight.
“We did see a need to better enforce the carry-on allotment for international flights,” said Betsy Talton, a spokeswoman for Delta. “We are looking to make sure there is enough overhead space on international flights.”
Who is to blame for the overhead crunch? The Transportation Security Administration, which performs security screenings of passengers and bags, says it is up to the airlines to enforce the carry-on rules. Airlines, for their part, say their gate agents and flight attendants are responsible for ensuring that passengers don’t abuse the rules. But the rules, as any traveler can attest, are rarely enforced consistently.
Part of the problem, flight attendants say, is that while every airline adheres to the same general rule — one bag, plus one personal item — the rules for carry-on dimensions vary, which can lead to confusion and can make the rules harder to enforce. United’s carry-on policy, for example, states that carry-on bag dimensions should not be more than 9 by 14 by 22 inches or 45 linear inches. Continental, on the other hand, allows for a bag up to 51 linear inches, except on flights departing from India and Britain, where bags are limited to 45 linear inches. And Southwest Airlines limits carry-on bag dimensions to 10 by 16 by 24, or 50 linear inches.
For the last decade, the Association of Flight Attendants has been calling for a uniform bag rule across all airlines, but nothing has come of it. As for now, the main tool available for sizing bags is the often-ignored carry-on templates that sit outside boarding gates or near check-in counters.
From a practical standpoint, there’s not much passengers can do outside of packing light or squealing on violators.
The best way to ensure your carry-on makes it onboard is to follow the rules yourself and check any oversize bags before boarding. Boarding first also helps. Most airlines allow families with small children, passengers with disabilities and frequent fliers with elite status to board ahead of others.
For example, American lets its frequent fliers with Gold status holding tickets in coach enter the plane with the first group of coach passengers called to board. This gives the Gold customers dibs on the overhead space near their seats. Skybus, for one, which has a first-come first-served boarding process, lets travelers pay $12.50 each way to board the plane in the first boarding group. Similarly, Southwest gives priority boarding to passengers who pay its highest ticket prices for “business select” fares.
Because most airlines board passengers back to front by rows, booking a seat at the back of the plane can help your chances of securing overhead bin space. United is an exception. It boards window seats first, followed by middle seats and then aisles.
Some passengers take the first available bin space they see at the front of the plane, instead of hoping for room above their seat. But, unless you’re last to board, this can cause issues for passengers looking for bin space behind you.
Susan Foster, author of “Smart Packing for Today’s Traveler,” has a simpler solution. “Just take less,” she advised. “The smaller the carry-on, the better the odds of finding a space.” Moreover, she continued, “flight attendants have sympathy for the traveler with one small carry-on who cannot find a space, much less for the overloaded person with briefcase, suitcase, tote bag and purse.” A squishable bag that can fit either in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you can help, too.
Ultimately, however, travelers are generally left to fend for themselves when it comes to securing space in the overhead bin scrum. And cheaters are rarely called out.
“Those of us who try to bring carry-ons which match the size or are lower than the maximum always get the short end,” said Maureen Connolly, an educator from Bolingbrook, Ill., who flies often for conferences and vacations. “It is similar to the people who bring 25 items to the 10-item-or-less grocery store line.”