Bat­tle for the over­head bin is as fierce as ever

USA TODAY International Edition - - MONEY / TRAVEL - Christo­pher El­liott Christo­pher El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate. Con­tact him at chris@el­liott.org

Too much stuff, not enough bin space.

The prob­lem is easy enough to de­fine for air trav­el­ers. But the so­lu­tion — de­spite new air­line rules — is not.

Con­sider what hap­pened to Jeff Blend, who re­cently flew from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to Los An­ge­les on United Air­lines. As pas­sen­gers boarded be­fore him, they crammed their heavy coats into the over­head bins, even though flight at­ten­dants pleaded with them not to. In­stead of stop­ping the coat-stuffers, the crewmem­bers sim­ply closed the bins and moved on.

“About a third of the bins were filled with jack­ets,” re­mem­bers Blend, an at­tor­ney from Wash­ing­ton. “I’m sure they couldn’t ac­com­mo­date all the carry-on bags.”

It wasn’t sup­posed to be that way. United and other ma­jor air­lines have re­cently clamped down on carry-on lug­gage, re­strict­ing the abil­ity to carry a full-size carry-on bag to pas­sen­gers with a reg­u­lar econ­omy-class ticket or bet­ter. Pas­sen­gers with “ba­sic” econ­omy fares have to check their lug­gage.

“If you’re trav­el­ing on a Ba­sic Econ­omy ticket and bring a carry-on bag to the gate, your bag will need to be checked and you’ll be re­quired to pay the ap­pli­ca­ble checked bag fee plus a $25 gate han­dling charge,” the air­line warns on its web­site.

So what’s go­ing on? Flight at­ten­dants don’t want a con­fronta­tion with al­ready-stressed pas­sen­gers. Even though lost lug­gage is less of a prob­lem, many pas­sen­gers still don’t trust an air­line with their be­long­ings, and they don’t want to pay more for their bags. And the whole thing seems so un­fair that air trav­el­ers feel jus­ti­fied in bend­ing or break­ing the new lug­gage rules.

Eve­lyn Spencer, a travel agent from Chadds Ford, Pa., re­calls a re­cent flight from Philadel­phia to Rome on Amer­i­can Air­lines. She boarded the air­craft with a reg­u­la­tion-size carry-on, but a flight at­ten­dant stopped her, say­ing the flight was full.

“I said I was en­ti­tled to one carry-on, and since I was one of the first to board, I had an is­sue with what I was be­ing told,” she says. “The head flight at­ten­dant asked if there was a prob­lem since I was hold­ing up board­ing. She said, ‘OK, you can take your carry-on.’ ”

Flight crews are un­der im­mense pres­sure dur­ing board­ing to get every­one on the plane quickly. Some­times, al­low­ing pas­sen­gers to slide an ex­tra bag into the over­head bin is the fastest way to an on-time de­par­ture.

Also, pas­sen­gers don’t trust air­lines with their checked lug­gage, even though fewer bags are get­ting lost (only 2.4 per 1,000 pas­sen­gers in 2017, vs. 2.7 the year be­fore, ac­cord­ing to the De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion). There’s an ex­pec­ta­tion that if an air­line is charg­ing for checked bags — and col­lect­ing a cool $2.2 bil­lion a year from us — that they can at least track our lug­gage.

It shouldn’t be such a prob­lem. Air­lines have added larger over­head bins and new re­stric­tions on carry-ons, and yet they are still los­ing this space war.

“It hap­pens ev­ery day,” says Joshua Zweighaft, a flight at­ten­dant for an air­line based in New York. “Since we started charg­ing for checked lug­gage with our low­est fares, peo­ple have been car­ry­ing on as much as pos­si­ble. Com­bined with peo­ple putting jack­ets and small items in the over­head bins, we run out of space on full flights reg­u­larly.”

The fix for air­lines is easy: Stop charg­ing for checked lug­gage. De­creas­ing the num­ber of pas­sen­gers lug­ging bags makes board­ing faster and less stress­ful for all.

Pas­sen­gers have a role to play, too. Bring the small­est carry-on pos­si­ble. Don’t claim ex­tra space in the bin for your coat. And don’t try to game the sys­tem, it’s only hurt­ing your fel­low pas­sen­gers.

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