International Airline Body Adopts New Stricter Carry On Bag Guidelines

Many flyers don’t remember that before 9/11 US passengers could take two carry on bags onboard. Generally passengers had a free allowance of three bags — and those could be two carry ons and one checked bag, or one carry on and two checked bags.

This changed as a result of government regulation. The TSA wanted fewer bags going through the checkpoint, which meant less screening work, and fewer delays given a fixed throughput at the checkpoint.

Continental Airlines actually pushed back: they had installed higher capacity overhead bins as a customer convenience. Passengers wanted to carry on bags, and they viewed this accommodation as a competitive advantage.

Of course that was before:

  • Airlines charged for checked bags, and everyone wanted to carry their bags on as a result.

  • Planes were so full, that overhead bins filled up even more still.

More carry ons, especially when they exceed the capacity of an aircraft, delay departures. Passengers board, look for space, and then gate check at the last minute. That’s costly to an airline and inconvenient for a customer.

On the other hand, it encourages passengers to try to board early, and to obtain early boarding privileges such as by obtaining the airline’s co-brand credit card.

The international airline body IATA has proposed new carry on size standards that are smaller than what most US airlines currently allow. By just a little bit.

At a meeting in Miami on Tuesday, IATA announced a proposed standard carry-on size of 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches. Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines, for example, limit carry-on bags to no bigger than 22 x 14 x 9 inches.

Call me skeptical, but ruling existing 22 inch bags oversized — by half an inch — doesn’t sound like “a program that is designed to make things easier for everyone” as IATA’s senior vice president for airport, passenger, cargo and security claims.

As far as whether or not this voluntary guideline will be adopted:

Windmuller said about 30 to 40 airlines has expressed interest in accepting the IATA standard, with about a dozen foreign carriers, including Emirates, Lufthansa and Qatar, already agreeing to accept the guidelines.

“This should bring a degree of standardization to the industry and make it easier for everyone concerned,” he said.

It should be good for baggage manufacturers, I suppose, with customers going out and replacing 22 inch rollaboards if the guidelines do spread. And it should be good for IATA to the extent that they license the logo they’re planning to show that a bag is compliant with their guidelines. (This logo will likely lead to some interesting confrontations – as IATA guidelines compliance won’t mean they meet an airline’s guidelines, and a bag may well be larger when full – and I’d expect some customers to point to their emblem in disagreeing with gate agents asking them to check their bag.)

While I don’t actually view this as a ploy to extract more checked baggage fees from passengers, as airlines throughout much of the world allow free checked bags, I don’t think it’s customer-friendly at all.

A better approach? Alaska Airlines — which allows 24 inch bags — has installed new bins on their Boeing 737-900ERs that hold up to 174 bags, a 48% increase over the standard 117 bag capacity for the aircraft.

In much of the world, of course, a weight concept is used — passengers on airlines like Virgin Australia which impose a 7 kilogram (15.4 pound) carry on limit aren’t going to be able to bring even a 21.5 inch bag.

As for me, I’ll take my laptop bag on a simple overnight, a trip of 2-3 days I’ll take an 18 inch bag, and a week I have either a 20 or 21 inch. I wasn’t pushing the envelope on luggage size to begin with.

What sort of carry on do you bring?

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, 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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Decades ago, I was on an Ozark Airlines flight where a passenger put his portable electronic piano up in the overhead bin. Seriously doubt if Megabus would allow the instrument in the cargo section.

  2. First I read this story too quickly. I didnt notice it was IATA in relation to International bags. People in the US already (exceed) the sizes which were designed a million years ago. As you mentioned the ridiculous weight allowance on your Virgin Blue flight to Australia.

  3. Actually, this change is more than a “little bit” in my view. They’ve shaved 1 inch off the length, 1/2 inch off the width and 1 1/2 inches off the depth of the current standards of the US major lines. That’s 3 inches lost!

  4. I’m sick of the %*&!! Airlines and their trade associations! I’m sick of having to go out and replace expensive bags every time they change their minds! The airlines have pushed us around way too much for the last 10+ years. We need to start pushing back!

  5. As a manufacturer of cases for photographers and filmmakers, I can only hope that this never goes into effect. 9 inches is already a very tough measure to meet when traveling with photographic gear. Professional cameras and mid-range zoom lenses are about 6 inches tall, so there’s no way you could stand them upright in a case and build a protective shell around them and still meet 7.5 inches, especially with a laptop in the front pocket. And if the equipment is not standing upright, then the capacity of the case drops horribly and you wouldn’t be able to fit a reasonably sized pro camera system in the overhead compartment. The 7.5-inch regulation would be awful.

    Also, what would 7.5 inches even accomplish? If 13.5″ is designed to allow more cases side to side, or to allow them to fit vertically as in the Alaska airlines photo, then I get that. And if 21.5″ improves the ability to fit wheels-in then I get that as well. But the 7.5 measure would only allow jackets and thin items to be stored on top of a rolling case, which they often already are. It seems like they’d be gaining space that would be hard to take advantage of.

  6. Ugh!! I’m really in favor of a single international standard, but this should not be it. Compare this proposal to IATA’s current/previous recommendation for airlines:

    Cabin baggage should have a maximum length of 56 cm (22 inches), width of 45 cm (18 inches) and depth of 25 cm (10 inches) including all handles, side pockets, wheels etc.

  7. I find the 22 inch rollaboards sold only count the bag itself, without the wheels. Once you add the wheels and soft handlebar, you are looking at 23+ inches easily..

  8. My Rimowa Topas 56 aka “Cabin Multiwheel” (22 x 17.7 x 9.8) is already slightly larger than allowed, but it fits many bins fine–I actually buy tickets based on where it’s going to fit (777 over 767/A330, 737 over A320, CR9 and gate valet over E170/190 and no valet, etc). For the most part, I have no issues…

  9. I wonder what will go into all those brand new super large bins on all the new aircraft being designed and built ?!

    Although I must admit – a “global standard” is way overdue

  10. I don’t get why the height of the bag should matter (assuming the overhead can still close) unless the bins are actually capable of handling bags put in vertically (like in the Alaska Airlines picture). With that said I have not actually seen those bins in action. The ones I have seen on UA seems like they could accommodate bags side by side but they are not actually as deep as they appear. I have noticed also on a lot of plans (a320 in particular) the over heads are sort of paired off but in the middle of the pairs is some extra support that limits what could be five side by side bags wheels out to just four.

  11. OK, I looked back at the various major global airlines’ policies on carry-on baggage and unfortunately my conclusion is what I had been worrying was the case: The new proposal is simply the lowest measure of each dimension across the full IATA membership. 55cm x 35cm x 20 cm. Most international carriers already use the 55cm max height. There’s a group of airlines that allow narrower but thicker bags in the 55x35x25 range (e.g. Delta, AF/KLM, United, AA, although the US carriers actually tend to do 56x36x23cm because of the in to cm conversion). A large group of airlines allow wider but skinnier bags in the 55x40x20cm range (e.g. Lufthansa, Korean).

    So basically IATA is taking the lowest limit for each dimension. I guess their original recommendation just wasn’t ever going to be acceptable to the airlines? If they’d offered the “guaranteed” branding with the previous recommendation, I’ll bet they could have gotten fairly widespread adoption, but alas, they went the easy route and picking smaller dimensions that no airline can complain about.

    @Peter, Very good point about photo gear. Makes me glad I ended up going with m43. The sometimes minor differences in size and weight of each component of the system really add up!

  12. They only way the airlines will pay attention is if they start losing customers. If anyone is to blame for this it is us. We hem and haw and kvetch about all these little changes that mess with our flying world but at the end of the day we still book the flights. The airlines have taken a long time to come to the realization that we’re all talk, little action…but come to it they finally have. It’s why Delta acts the way it does. It’s why United acts the way it does. That’s why seat pitch has shrunk and slimline seats will take over the world with razor thin armrests. It’s why IFE is getting worse not better and we have to pay more to get less. It’s why the IATA will be able to successfully ram this proposal down our throats. The airlines can be customer hostile because we want to fly to places and we need them far more than they think they need us..

  13. I just purchased two new 22″ rollaboards and now I already have to replace them?! Seriously, f the airlines and IATA. Hopefully airlines will make exceptions for their elites and/or first class passengers who didn’t pay for the “privilege” of having to gate check a 22″ bag.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *