Everyone Is to Blame for Too Many Checked Bags On Board, They Just Didn’t Know It

I like Joe Sharkey, he’s one of those great curmudgeons in travel, and full disclosure he moderated a panel I was on a couple of years ago at the Phoenix International Aviation Symposium.

But like so many curmudgeons, crankiness holds together their narrative more than argument. As with this New York Times piece on checked baggage fees.

Sharkey manages to simultaneously offer us that:

  • People carry on more luggage than they are permitted.
  • It’s unfair for airline personnel to single people out to check the size of their carryons.
  • An inability to carry all of the bags people bring on board a full flight is a problem with the aircraft.

Here are some highlights.

Attire Discrimination: Will How You Dress Determine Whether You Face Carry On Scrutiny?

Michael S. Piraino, an elite-status flier on United, said he made an “informal study” on 10 recent flights of how the rules were applied at check-in areas. “On all 10 flights, I watched to see who was asked to put their bags into the sizer,” Mr. Piraino said. No men in business suits were, but males dressed casually tended to be singled out, he reported.

I’ve found that ‘informal studies’ conducted by passengers are always reliable. So I’ll posit that Mr. Piraino, over the course of 10 representative flights, carefully observed all passengers boarding (himself boarding last) and making notes based on clearly defined passenger categories and with proper measurements of each carry-on.

Even if correct that “men in business suits” weren’t being asked to use the sizer with the same frequency as casually dressed men, it’s not implausible that regular business travelers travel lighter and have carry ons that meet regulation size. In other words, how you dress may not influence flight attendant behavior but how you dress may correlate with your own carry on behavior.

The Problem Isn’t The Carry Ons — It’s the Plane

Last week, “I was reading your column on United’s bag-size policy after having boarded a completely full United flight,” said Bob Cunico, who said that he saw as many as 20 regulation-size bags that had to be gate-checked. “In other words, the plane did not have the storage capacity needed to serve the number of passengers,” he said.

Airlines used to allow more carry on bags than they do today. After 9/11, to reduce the bags being sent through the security checkpoint, government regulations drove the reduction. Passengers used to be able to take two carryons, not just one.

And yet gate checking was rarely an issue because flights weren’t full.

With full flights, and more passengers opting to carry on versus check to avoid checked baggage fees, there are more bags boarding than there were years ago.

But is that a problem with the plane’s configuration? Or with rules allowing so many checked bags, given that configuration? Many airlines around the world enforce limits on carry on baggage not just by size but by weight and actually weigh those bags. I’ve gotten pushback in recent times by Vietnam Airlines and Air France.

This is uncommon in the U.S. but further limits on cabin baggage would mean no need to gate check — but wouldn’t make passengers happy. It would lead to conspiracy pieces about airlines maximizing revenue. A Spirit Air model of charging for cabin bags over a certain size would accomplish the same thing.

Many regional jets don’t have space in the cabin for a single rollaboard. That’s why they offer planeside baggage checks, I love that Alaska Airlines refers to this as “a la Cart” baggage. Are those planes failing to meet their ‘obligation’ to have sufficient space for rollaboards?

Everyone Has a Right to the Space Over Their Seat – So Shouldn’t Have to Gate Check

Tony Williams was among those who mentioned a common annoyance: “People who are sitting in Row 20” and put their carry-on bags into the overhead at, say, Row 10, “should be immediately escorted off the plane,” he suggested.

There’s no clear standard for which overhead space belongs to which passenger, other than perhaps that passengers ought to use the bin space in their ticketed cabin. (Coach passengers do frequently take first class bin space, of course.)

Even if bins over your seat were ‘yours’ there may not be enough, bins do not correspond precisely to rows, and you could find yourself without sufficient space.

Furthermore the most important thing is an on-time departure and just getting bags up and passengers seated contributes to that. ‘Escorting passengers off the plane’ who offend perceived overhead norms would be the last thing you would want to do.

The Problem is Actually the Passengers

Stephen Fredericks wrote, “I happened to read your piece last week while sitting in my economy-plus seat on a flight boarding in Houston for La Guardia” and watching people lug on oversize bags. But on a later flight from La Guardia, he noted with satisfaction, United agents flagged two young women “trying to board with enough luggage to fill the trunk of an oversize car.”

The Problem is Actually the Employees

Linda Frioud observed that airlines might set a better example by enforcing carry-on rules for crew members. On a recent full flight from Philadelphia to Charlotte, N.C., on US Airways, she said, “there was no room for overhead storage after the eight US Airways employees flying on our flight had stuffed the overhead bins with four or more carry-ons per person. I counted them.”

It’s Really Not That Complicated

Planes are full. Passengers carry on as much as they can. That means more passengers carrying on more bags without more space.

Airlines combat that in a variety of ways. Airlines want to leave on time and don’t want to delay the boarding process. So they may offer to check bags free at the gate prior to boarding, rather than simply delaying boarding. But in any case passengers have to get on board, and their bags have to fly one way or another.

If you don’t want your bag gate checked on a full flight, don’t be among the last to board. That can be accomplished via elite status, being an airline co-brand credit card holder, skipping ahead in the queue, or simply being alert even if you’re in a late boarding group.

The alternatives though probably wouldn’t be desirable. Costly aircraft redesign would have to be passed on to customers in price. Limits on the number of passengers allowed on a plane wouldn’t be good for price either. Ultimately mass transportation is… mass transportation. And you can’t carry on unlimited bags on Greyhound either, above a certain size the bags are going to go under the bus.

(HT: Jason H. on Twitter)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Or travel with a backpack, so everything fits under the seat in front of you. Never worry about overhead space or early boarding ever…

  2. Why can’t the government just mandate that first checked in bag has to be included in the price of the ticket? Many people would prefer to check in their biggest bag instead of bringing it onboard.
    I know this would somewhat suck for those who travel lightly but it would make life easier for almost everyone.

  3. Well, average fares would have to be even higher than they are and people who don’t check bags would be subsidizing those that do, but strictly speaking the government probably could mandate this, airlines are not nearly as deregulated as we think they are.

  4. They should just have a pair of sizers attached to the front of the gate. Like a cattle chute. The bag has to pass through one of them, and the passenger has to pass through the other. Otherwise you are physically not getting on the plane.

  5. The Rimowa IATA bag and a few other bags I’ve seen happily fit in the overhead on a regional jet. It’s not uncommon that I’m the only one with a bag in the overhead on those flights, but there is definitely space there.

  6. My point is simple: I have a 22″ Travelpro that fits in every plane it should (i.e. no RJs). It fits into United’s box if I shove hard. And I was told “the rule is simple: it must go in and out without any help, or it fails and you check.”

    Uh, gimme a break. If the goal is to load faster, make the box the actual size. Don’t advertise how huge the 787 overhead bins are, and then tell me I have to check a bag that’s 2/3rds the length.

    I have no problem with the policy. I have a serious issue with the actual dimensions of the box and have ABSOLUTELY no question that United will use this for revenue as soon as they can. Oh, and a few months ago when I had an extra beer at IAD and boarded late? Oh yeah, they lost my gate-checked bag. I can’t wait until they chart charging for that privilege.

    Also, I am sure gate agents profile. It’s easy to tell who is going to take forever and delay the plane. I mean, if the goal is speed it makes sense: profile groups 4 and 5 while there’s a line anyway. Waste all your time on group 1 and (a) piss of the gold flyer and (b) delay getting people on the plane while you waste time checking their bag.

  7. There are two choices:

    1) small items are not permitted in the overhead and must go under the seat in front of you(allowances for bulkhead rows)

    2) only one item per person

    Either of these will help make a difference. Not a perfect solution, but would solve some (yes, only some) of the challenges described above.

  8. Gary,

    I don’t have much of anything to contribute to this particular article, but I wanted you to know that I love these types of posts. It seems you’ve been writing more of them lately. They are great.


  9. I agree with Lantean: the price of a ticket should include the option to check one bag for free. Even light travelers that don’t typically check a bag enjoy the benefit of having a bag transported to their destination. It shouldn’t matter much (although it does to a lot of people) if your bag is in the overhead bin or stored in the cargo hold; your bag is getting transported. Passengers who travel light and have only a single modestly-sized bag should be encouraged to check that bag. It would make TSA screening faster, speed plane loading/unloading, and reduce the mad frenzy that boarding has become. Indeed, there are costs to checking a bag (not just $). Checking a bag means waiting at baggage claim, which takes valuable time. This merely bolsters the argument that the first checked bag should be free and people should pay for carry-on luggage. You want the convenience of taking a bag larger than a laptop case on the plane? No problem, that will be $25. Otherwise, you can check that bag for free.

  10. I must admit to being staggered by quite how much carryon luggage some passengers on a recent United flight were trying to bring on board – definitely taking the piss! The main reason after cost that many don’t want to check bags though is the interminably slow process to get luggage back at the other end! If you knew your bags would be ready to collect by the time you reached the airport exit then I’m sure many more people wouldn’t mind checking a bag. However when you know it might add half an hour to your journey just from waiting most people would prefer to stick to carry-on only if possible! I like how it works with regional jets – planeside deposit AND COLLECTION of the bag means no delay waiting at baggage reclaim. If this was offered on more aircraft type then I think more people wouldn’t mind checking in a bag.

  11. It is interesting that it is the airlines that does not enforce the one per passenger carry on rule, (I could fill a book with the number of passengers on any one flight, who have too much Carry on luggage and/or shopping bags), and then when it is obvious that the over bins are quickly filling up, the Gate personnel will then randomly begin with the ‘poorest joe’ towards the end in line and insist they check their carry ons.

    A few points to consider here as to the total lack of regard by the airlines towards the carry on issue:
    – passengers arriving last due to late arriving connecting flights,
    – economy passengers who can’t ‘afford’ more fees,
    – perceived barriers such as language, race or the more casually dressed
    – – almost always get ‘forced’ to check carry ons.

  12. Here’s a “study” i conducted myself. If you don’t think airlines took advantage of the baggage check laws to increase revenue, you’re not living in reality. I’m 44 years old, I’ve been flying business and personaly for just over two decades. I save all my flight recipes for tax and business purposes. Pre-nine eleven, delta, American Airlines and jet blue all allowed one free checked bag. Now none do and you’re charged an exorbitant fee for anything other than carry on. I have a ticket (one of dozens) from 1999-2001 showing one checked bag free and a second at 12-24 dollars. Now I have another ticket (one of just over 100) from the past 5 years. The cheapest bag checked being 28 dollars and the most expensive -my most recent- at 72 dollars! For one checked bag! Now you can come up with whatever “conspiracy ” theory you like to explain the rise in price, from inflation to having to pay more due to more handling fees. But the only “conspiracy nuts” are the people who DON’T think the airlines are gouging us. Honestly, maybe spend less time making inane accusations and do some actual research, as a “reporter” -a term which these days seems to mean some mellinial who’s a glorified blogger- you should try to have a little more integrity and less reliance on some admittedly angry “curmudgeonly” old mans anecdotal evidence. Honestly sitting at the airport bar watching people board a plane while trying to use an oversized stylus on an undersized phone to take hastily scrawled “notes” isn’t a study. It’s a sign he’s a sociopath, when you grow up and get a few years or real reporting behind you maybe you’ll discover the difference.

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