Who Does the Overhead Bin Space Belong To, Anyway?

Before 9/11 it was common for airlines to allow two full-sized carry on bags onboard and that didn’t even count your personal item. Planes weren’t as full, and airlines didn’t charge for checked bags, so most customers didn’t do that and it was generally possible to find space in the overhead bins.

However two things changed that:

  1. The TSA happened, and to speed up security checkpoints limits were placed on carry on bags. More bags carried on means more bags going through the checkpoint, and more work for screeners.

  2. Checked baggage fees happened, starting with American Airlines in 2008. Customers who used to check even the one bag they’d be bringing with them stopped doing that because it was cheaper not to check.

Since then there’s been a race for bin space, which is unfortunate from my perspective because it means if you want to ensure you have space (especially space near your seat) and don’t have to gate check (if all the space is gone) you have to board early.

That’s good for airlines who want everyone in their seats and ready to go, less so for passengers who might grab a bite to eat in the airport or send that last email from the lounge.

For years customers in economy have stowed their bags wherever they’ve been able to find space. And that’s been acceptable because there are no clear norms and no enforced rules over who overhead bin space belongs to.

That’s changing.. sort of. First Delta and now American label their bins with a respective cabin, suggesting that only passengers in those seats should use those bins. That discourages some people from stuffing their belongings in the overhead as they walk by on their way to the rear of the aircraft, but it doesn’t work with everyone.

Here are (6) principles for carry on bags that I think are true.

  • When everyone is on board, remaining space belongs to everyone. It would be stupid to require a passenger to gate check a bag because there’s no space left in ‘their section’ of the aircraft but open space up front.

    If a passenger is entitled to use bin space in their ticketed cabin, and coach passengers should walk back to coach and hunt and peck there, surely this changes at some point during the boarding process. If you’re in the last minutes of boarding can’t you take any space at all?

  • A boarding pass is a license to hunt. While everyone except Basic Economy passengers on United and on some (other) ultra low cost carriers are entitled to bring a carry on bag onto the plane, there’s generally not enough space for everyone to actually do that. And since there’s not enough room for everyone to have space above their seat, there’s no entitlement to the space directly above your seat.

  • It’s not ok to take bin space above the bulkhead if you aren’t seated there. Those seats generally don’t have floor storage so passengers into those seats have to stow not just a carry on but also their personal item up there as well.

  • Unwritten rules sadly aren’t enforceable. American Airlines says 87% of customers fly at most once a year. If there are unwritten rules, how are those customers supposed to know them? And if they aren’t required to follow unwritten rules, no one else can be either.

  • There’s an information problem. Passengers boarding the plane don’t know what bin space has already been taken or what’s left. Closed bins might be a signal, or the bins might just be closed.

  • Coach passengers taking first class bin space slows down deplaning. Coach passengers with bags up front don’t delay deplaning much. First class passengers who have to put their bags farther back have to fight their way back into the cabin on landing to get their cabin baggage. Deplaning speed suggests passengers should use space nearest to them, and taking space in front of your row means someone else has to move backwards on landing. Wouldn’t Kant say this is a categorical imperative?

  • Be sure you aren’t last to board. If someone is going to have to gate check a bag you don’t want it to be you.

This tells me that no matter what signs airlines put on bins, there’s going to be some deviation and airlines aren’t asking flight attendants to enforce the signs. First class bins should be for first class passengers first but the end goal should be getting as many carry on bags on the plane as possible.

Ultimately this is a war of all against all, and you have to take care of yourself, the best way to do that is to race the boarding gate and get on as soon as your boarding group is called.

The only real solution of course is bigger overhead bins. Alaska was first out with these new Boeing bins, American Airlines has put them into most narrowbody aircraft avia their ‘Project Oasis’ retrofit that takes out seat back entertainment and uses uncomfortable slimline seats to squeeze passengers closer together. United has said they’ll do bigger bins too.

The two changes are linked, of course, it’s entirely possible to put in more bins without also squeezing seats closer together, unless the ultimate goal is to use those bigger bins to carry more passengers.

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. simple solution: airlines offer free (additional) checked bag in exchange for no carry-on, still would have personal item for liquidz

  2. for me it’s never about checked bagged fees (i don’t even recall when’s the last time i actually paid a checked bag fee in the past 8 years), but about theft. Those losers working down the ramp simply can’t be trusted with not stealing your stuff (and with zero accountability).

  3. Fortunately, the attendants on Frontier flights have somewhat recently gotten good at defending the first couple of bins for those in the bulkhead and the first few roads, presumably because it was a major deplaning nightmare when passengers farther back were routinely filling up those bins.

  4. “Unwritten rules sadly aren’t enforceable.””

    There’s also an unwritten rule that the space under the seat in front of you is yours. I cannot imagine people reacting well to someone stuffing a personal item under a seat that isn’t directly in front of them. It’s a shame that people don’t show the same level of courtesy when it comes to overhead bins above bulkhead seats. Maybe at least one unwritten rule should become written: People sitting in bulkhead seats get priority access to the bins above them.

    Sadly, a more likely outcome is that airlines will start charging to reserve specific overhead bins. I’m sure the idea has crossed Doug Parker’s small mind more than once.

  5. Of course if you expand the bulkhead bins what was the real purpose of assessing bag fees unrelated to actual costs in the first place?

  6. “That’s good for airlines who want everyone in their seats and ready to go”

    Not really. Everyone carrying on two items significantly delays boarding times compared with airlines where typically permit only one. EasyJet can turn an A320 significantly faster than UA, and much of that is to do with how quickly people board (and, to a lesser extent, de-board).

  7. What about when crew uses the bins over bulkhead. Another unwritten rule for deplaning should be that the direction is one way. Don’t push yourself back to get your bag. If someone is not willing to hand you your bag, you will have to wait.

  8. Was recently in MCE on a completely full AA mainline domestic flight. I was pleasantly surprised that the FA was gently policing the up-front bins as people boarded by keeping them closed until an assigned pax (me) actually got to the seat. The closed bin signaled (most) other passengers to keep going and was a less confrontational approach.

  9. Also, it’s not OK to put both your carry-on and personal item in the overhead bin just so you have nothing at your feet. (At least not until everyone is on board).

    The people that really drive me crazy are the people who will put their carry-on in the overhead and then put their coat next to it all fluffed up and close the bin as if it’s full.

  10. A large portion of the issue could be solved by more intelligent passengers. No one should be allowed to fly until they know how to load a truck or a moving van. How many times does one passenger take up an entire bin by putting a hand bag, carry-on, coat and hat spread out in the entire bin? Sometimes they are not even bright enough to turn their bag the correct direction or on it’s side to maximize the space allotted. Who wants to spend the additional 20 min waiting for a checked bag that is often beat to crap by ramp neanderthals?
    Oh the joys of civilization.

  11. Much of this problem stems from the stupid idea that people shouldn’t check bags and these so called travel gurus who are constantly telling people that less is more and you should pack for your 3 week trip to Europe with only a single carry-on bag and toothbrush! While I don’t carry the 8 bags I carried on my first trip abroad anymore, I am still one of those who checks bags…EVEN WHEN I HAVE TO PAY FOR THEM. Fortunately, I usually don’t have to because my cc covers those kinds of fees and I’m using award tix but my point is that it became a sin among travel bloggers who make anyone who can’t get by with a few items of clothing or who doesn’t want ALL of their vacation pics in those two outfits 🙂 to be some sort of outcast. I see the guys who travel with just a backpack on blogs telling us not to burden ourselves but I’m sorry I need my stuff, sue me. I LIKE clean clothes and not having to do laundry or trust a hotel service with my things. I WISH they’d enforce bag sizes and limits HERE like they do in Europe, if it doesn’t fit in the little simulated bin, you MUST check it. I see people boarding with 3 or 4 carry-on items trying to cram junk in everywhere all because, heaven forbid, they don’t want to “check’ a bag because it might slow them down…as opposed to the 30 minutes it takes them to cram that crap everywhere then try to find it on landing! Check your bags already!

  12. One of my pet peeves are coach passengers dropping their bags at the nose of the plane overhead bins so they can grab them on their way off. Coach passengers should not be using first class bins. Lots of times first class passengers will board last since they’re in the lounge working.

    I also see people using the bins above bulkhead when they don’t sit there. This is terribly annoying to witness.

    For me personally, I can’t stand when someone with a full size carry on suitcase slams that into my travel backpack with a laptop inside. My laptop doesn’t fit under the seat and its a PITA when other passengers put stuff on top of it.

  13. Your comment :
    It’s not ok to take bin space above the bulkhead if you aren’t seated there. Those seats generally don’t have floor storage so passengers into those seats have to stow not just a carry on but also their personal item up there as well.

    Completely AGREE !
    I remember a few years ago flying first on United (legacy) and seeing the overhead bins above the bulkhead seats and the 2nd row – closed. WhenI took my seat the FA by the boarding door asked if I was seated in row one or two and if so, please put the bag in the “saved” space above. Thought this was a very forward thinking FA. Unfortunately she was the exception. Often seated in row one or two and watching that overhead space taken by pax seated far far back and into economy while no one is seated in the bulkhead seats with the FA watching and saying nothing.

    2nd pet peeve is on a recent sold out redeye from SFO to EWR on United, I was sitting in the middle seats aisle (777) and noticed that there was only one person in the exit row bulkhead. She has just arrived at her seat to find the overhead bin full of luggage. Later in the flight, a FA showed up, opened the bin and went through his two big bags! FA’s should NOT put their luggage in bulkhead overhead bins!

  14. I almost never put anything in the overhead . I check luggage and let someone else fuss with it . Sometimes people go to great lengths to ‘beat the system’ . Just get the right credit card (or a few) and you don’t pay luggage fees .

  15. Yesterday flew DL JFK-DEN. Gate agent offered anyone gate-checking a bag a move up to Zone 1 boarding.

  16. paul and Sco i agree with you the bins hogs are alive and thriving ..putting everything they own up in a bin..then jumping up 2 or 3 times before takeoff to get something out and blocking incoming!!

  17. Some cannot check their bags due to medical equipment needed. Can’t take the chance that it will be lost. Wish I was not high maintenance but not my fault.

    I do hate it when it’s announced not to put personal items in overhead bins and then people do it anyway. How inconsiderate.

  18. You noted, “The only real solution of course is bigger overhead bins.” I think that is only part of the solution. If that’s the only step taken, the number and/or size of the bags will simply increase (despite any rules) to fill the added space. It would be much like expressways that have lanes added to reduce congestion, but quickly have as much congestion as ever.

    The other necessary step is subdividing the overhead bins with partitions, and assigning a specific bin area to a specific seat. So if you’re seated in 17C, somewhere close to your seat is an overhead bin with a partitioned-off space marked 17C. That’s yours. Anyone’s else stuff in it when you get there is removed (preferably by a flight attendant).

    If airlines want to charge for a dedicated overhead bin area, fine. I have no problem with unbundling fees as long as they’re transparent.

    All the ridiculous systems now in place — pylons, zones, etc. — for boarding are all due to one reason: the race for overhead bin space. Imagine if both your seat AND your bin space were reserved. The gate agent could simply say, “OK, everyone, go get on the plane.” My goodness, it works at concerts, movies, ball games…..why not an airplane?

    (You still might need to let people who need extra time to board go first. Or last. Either one works.)

  19. There will always be problems with the overhead bins because people are (a) stupid (b) selfish (c) selfish and stupid. Recent case: I was in a window seat directly behind business class on an embraer, meaning the aisle seat next to me had no seat in front and no underseat storage. Naturally, when I arrive, the passenger next to me has already stuffed her oversized backpack under the seat in front of me. Not wanting to put my bag several rows behind, or get into a dispute over underseat rights, and since all but one business passenger was already seated, I placed my bag in the nearest (and almost empty) bin in business class. Immediately an FA starts grilling me about where I’m seated and warns I must move my bag if a business passenger needs the space. Unless that passenger boarded with a rollaboard, backpack, overcoat, mobility aids, etc. obviously there was more than enough room. Rules may be rules, but airline managerment takes the cake for most selfish and stupid here for not anticipating there would be disputes over bin space when you sell non-bulkhead seats that have no underseat storage.

  20. Just like we’re (USA) seeing that “unwritten rules,” while they worked in the past when there were more decent, honorable people working in Congress and the White House, the same goes for airline passengers.

    Unfortunately, we now need explicit rules/laws for anyone to maybe, possibly, act like a decent, non sociopathic human being.

  21. @chancer – Similar story – I was in the exit row, 21F, with a vacant seat in front of me. The person sitting in 20E in the row in front of me put her carryons under the F seat. I know it’s a stretch for me to put my carryon bag under that seat, but it is the only location for me to use (other than the overhead). HAD someone put their bag directly under the seat in front of me, I would have either asked them to move it, or I would have set my dirty shoes on top of it.

  22. Ha! I wonder what would happen if the bin above my seat was filled and I took their stuff out and set it on the floor!

  23. On a recent trip on Joon (Air France ) I checked my bag because it was 1 pound overweight. The bag was missing a foot on arrival. On boarding I noticedamy passengers with 3 pieces of carry on that were in total obviously overweight. This is disgusting.

  24. Imagine boarding a plane in Alaska in January bound for Hawaii and checking your bag only to discover when you arrive in Kahului that your bag went somewhere else. Now you’re traipsing around in the tropics dressed for the 65th parallel. Fortunately, I brought a carry-on with a change of clothes and my toiletries so only my husband was miserable in his thermals. If the airlines were better at not losing (breaking or stealing) checked bags, people would check their bags more often.

  25. “Wouldn’t Kant say this is a categorical imperative?”

    No. He is dead, so he Kant say anything.

  26. Sco – KMA. I’m 6’4″ and I pay for “extra space” — defeats the purpose a bit if I then have to lose that space and sit cramped up.

    My stuff is going overhead and experience tells me there’s not a damn thing you’re going to be able to do about it.

    Chancer / Casey – conversely, in that situation, the storage in front of me is mine, no matter how far away it is. The seat next to me doesn’t have that storage, not my problem, and if I need it, their crap is getting moved.

  27. On-board space is far more limited than baggage hold space. It makes no sense that airlines charge for checked bags while letting people bring half of their household on board.

    The only solution is to change this and charge appropriately for the very limited resource that is space in overhead bins. Checked baggage should then become either free, or at least much cheaper than carry-ons, to motivate people to check whatever stuff they don’t need on board.

    The best part of current policy is that I as a person who only brought small shoulder bag on board am constantly being asked to put it under my seat (thus limiting my legroom) so that people who contribute to the problem with large carry-ons can put them in overhead bins.

  28. Can’t airlines simply enforce the size limits for carry-on luggage. Seems like that would go a long way to eliminating the problem.

  29. I always thought have the scan on your ticket only open the bin above your row
    Then people could not just dum bags anywhere
    For the overhead was designed got
    3 bags which is a bag per passenger

    Sweden does it with movie tickets
    Your ticket
    Opens your seat area and restroom doors for 30 min after
    They stopped seat issues and non movie goers using the restroom

  30. I always thought have the scan on your ticket only open the bin above your row
    Then people could not just dum bags anywhere
    For the overhead was designed got
    3 bags which is a bag per passenger

    Sweden does it with movie tickets
    Your ticket
    Opens your seat area and restroom doors for 30 min after
    They stopped seat issues and non movie goers using the restroom

  31. At least lately, I seem to see the FAs protecting the first class overhead bins. The reason to pay for F is to make travel easier, and that should include easy access to your carryon. I usually try to get on as soon as boarding starts – not only to have bin space, but to make sure I don’t have a poacher (this doesn’t seem to happen as much in F any more, but still does in PE). Also, just to get situated, and if lucky, have a nice PDB.

    I don’t try to board late any more. Too much can go wrong in flying these days. Keep the stress low. Besides, I can send emails while I am sitting in my seat while waiting for everyone else to board, and then continue to do so once over 10,000 feet. .

  32. I’m ok checking and paying for a bag It’s the new reality
    I have traveled around the world with my leather carry on that holds my laptop,passport,toiletries etc
    on both mainline and regional planes and never once had an issue.
    we were last group to board and of course bins were full. I’m totally fine with stowing bag under seat in front of me. Imagine my surprise when my UA aisle seat ORD-DEN had some sort of (cable?) housing under all/most aisle seats that would not allow the bag to fit ( I tried several ways to squeeze it in there.
    So, there I sat waiting for the flight attendant to advise me I would have to gate check, fully prepared for a fight which surely I would lose.
    Fortunately, the woman in the window seat took pity on me and volunteered her overhead bin space where she had a small bag that fit under the seat in front of her.
    I had never seen this configuration under a seat.
    I rewarded her with chocolate from our QR Q suite and she was most appreciative

    I wrote Untied customer service to fire the idiot engineer who designed/approved this but not holding my breath for a response.

    I believe the issue is no one enforcing carry on rules

    Like Gary’s says, it’s all against all

    I believe overhead bins should be labeled, this space for seat 29A, this space for 29B etc
    3 spaces per bin, and if remaining bags don’t fit under the seat, gate check it is.

    It’s a brave new word out there

  33. I heard this solution once: Checked luggage is free, charge for carry-on luggage!

  34. @Henry LAX

    Your obviously so out of touch with reality if you’re calling us ramp guys losers!! We don’t have the time to “rifle” thru your bags and why would we?? Lots of these thefts occur somewhere between the ticket counter and the bagroom. We don’t know what you packed unless you’re bag pops open because it’s packed so full!!
    What an idiot you must be!!

  35. @ Gary —

    Your comment :
    It’s not ok to take bin space above the bulkhead if you aren’t seated there. Those seats generally don’t have floor storage so passengers into those seats have to stow not just a carry on but also their personal item up there as well.

    COMPLETELY DISAGREE. Sorry, a bulkhead seat does not have a guarantee convenient overhead space.

  36. ” some people from stuffing their belongings in the overhead as they walk by on their way to the rear of the aircraft,” Only a total tool does stuff like that. Like seriously they screw over everyone. Airlines shouldn’t be charging checked bag fees and more people would check their bags. Personally I don’t check my bags because I want to just go as soon as I arrive. Even when flying J and F I carry on exclusively even though I can check for free. Heck with my credit cards I can check baggage for free. I don’t want to. Can’t stand deboarding a plane and then standing around for half an hour waiting for my bag to come out. Negates all the time saved by global entry etc. Fortunately I usually have priority boarding so i’m not running into the issue of no bin space.

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