The carry-on scramble is a race with no winner. Those crowding the gate with the sharpest elbows and slickest baggage wheels shove to the front of the dour throng, praying to Icarus for a 22-by-14-by-9-inch slot of precious overhead bin space before their fellow passengers take it.
It’s an anxiety-inducing situation that appeared to have no solution — until now.
Two plans for addressing the carry-on fracas are taking shape, and they couldn’t be more different. The first, which is already becoming reality, allows for larger overhead bins that accommodate about 50 more carry-ons per flight. The second option, which is purely conceptual, nearly eliminates carry-on luggage.
If I had to, my vote would be to banish the carry-on.
Before you shake a fist at me and start phoning the local sanitarium, hear me out. No more carry-on baggage means no more gate lice, the term applied to those passengers who block the boarding gate in a fervent rush to get on the plane first. Without carry-ons, the current boarding process, which now lasts about as long as a season of “Game of Thrones,” would be a more pleasant experience. Passengers would simply walk on the plane and take a seat. The anxiety of getting on and off a plane would disappear.
I’m not talking about eliminating personal items, such as computer bags, purses, or diaper bags. Just the irksome, aisle-clogging Rollerboards.
“We’ve heard that people want their bags in the cabin with them,” said Devin Lidell, principal brand strategist with the design firm Teague and a champion of carry-on-free flights. “We dispute that. We think anything that you need to have with you in the cabin is easily stowable in a personal item. If you need an entire carry-on for your medication, how big are the pills that you’re taking?”
Lidell and his team at Teague designed a conceptual airline called Poppi. In it, the designers looked at what could be done to make flying more pleasurable, convenient, and modern. The most controversial part of the design was eliminating bulky overhead bins and replacing them with what he calls “fedora bins,” an homage to the early days of air travel when the overhead bins were primarily used to store hats. The slim fedora bins on Poppi could be used to hold computer bags and purses.
“In the boarding model that we used, fedora bins would increase the speed of boarding up to 71 percent,” Lidell said. “It’s a huge difference in how fast people could get on and off the airplane.”
According to Lidell’s calculations, a flight that might normally take an hour to board could be ready to go in 18 minutes when carry-ons are removed from the equation.
Let’s take this a step further. No carry-ons also means that TSA security check points would move swiftly, shaving an incredible amount of time off of the airport experience. Maybe I wouldn’t need to arrive at the airport half a day in advance if the risk of standing in an enormous line was eliminated.
I know I’m in the minority on this one, and my opinion flies (pun intended) in the face of what most experts recommend. Ninety-nine percent of the frequent fliers I interviewed for this story said they avoid checking bags at all cost, even if they have the good fortune of sitting in the front cabin and can check for free. With or without a luggage handling fee, many are afraid that their bags will turn up damaged or simply disappear, at least for a few days. There’s also a large contingent that wants to avoid standing around for 20 or 30 minutes at baggage return.
Those are valid concerns, but here’s my counter argument: Is it any faster to wait for people to get on the plane and load their carry-ons than it is to wait at baggage return? I haven’t found a study, so I conducted my own, and the amount of time was remarkably similar. Also, if all bags were checked, the amount of GTFT (that’s groin-to-face time) endured as people play luggage Tetris over my head would be virtually eliminated.
On the damaged and lost luggage concern, the rate of mishandled baggage has dropped by more than 60 percent worldwide between 2007 and 2014 in part because of modernized baggage handling. It’s down from 19 bags per thousand in 2007 to seven bags per thousand in 2014, according to the Geneva-based airline technology company SITA. You can also purchase GPS tracking devices for your luggage and find its location through an app on your phone.
If you absolutely can’t part with your carry-on, I think you should pay a fee — and all checked baggage should be free. It’s time to incorporate the cost of checked baggage back into ticket prices. Many ultra bargain airlines, such as Spirit and WOW, already charge fees for carry-on bags that are larger than they allow.
The result is that the airplane boarding insanity will finally come to an end.
“Fights break out. People put their bags in the front compartments, even though they are sitting way back,” said interior designer Steven Favreau, who has witnessed many a carry-on dustup. “People are shoving a second carry-on under their seat where the person behind should have foot room. I’ve heard screaming matches and witnessed threats.”
Getting rid of overhead bins would also eliminate the confusion surrounding carry-on size. Restrictions differ from carrier to carrier, and there are always passengers trying to sneak over-sized bags on the plane. Carry-on bags have gotten bigger at the same time that planes have gotten more full, according to the International Air Transport Association.
“The amount of luggage that people are bringing on a plane is out of control,” said Boston music promoter Adam Lewis, who avoids checking bags whenever he can. “I can’t tell you how many times I have been hit in the shoulder, head, or in the knee by a too-big bag being dragged down the aisle. My big toe is always run over.”
I’m aware that my proposed banning of carry-ons will float like a sack of anvils. Earlier this summer, the IATA suggested reducing the size of standard carry-on luggage, which would allow more bags on planes. Those smaller bags would get priority placement. Remember, this was just a suggestion. The backlash was so swift and harsh that the Geneva-based organization, which represents 280 airlines, quickly withdrew its suggestion.
“The subject you raise is certainly one that is regularly discussed,” Perry Flint, a spokesman for IATA, wrote in an e-mail. “However, IATA is not participating in the discussion.”
While the elimination of overhead bins is conceptual, increased capacity carry-on bins are now reality. They are in use on Alaska Airlines’ new Boeing 737-900ER. The bins allow Alaska to carry 47 more standard size bags per flight. The bins hang about 2 inches lower than traditional ones.
Delta will introduce the larger overhead bins in 2016 on new Airbus planes to address the tight squeeze of carry-ons.
“It could certainly be characterized as a pain point,” said Delta spokesman Michael Thomas. “We all understand that. But we’re doing a lot to mitigate it.”
These larger bins can’t come soon enough for local frequent flier Laura Fitton. “How do we loathe carry-ons and the boarding process? Let me count the ways,” she bemoaned.
“The boarding process has devolved to absurdity,” Fitton said. “Part of the problem is that size restrictions are such a joke. Airlines never seem to enforce them. The size component could easily be handled at the TSA stage.”
Fitton is such a seasoned flier that she avoids both carry-ons and checked bags by packing her entire wardrobe in a backpack that she can keep under her seat.
Despite frustrations with the boarding process, fliers such as author Chris Edmonds refuse to check bags and see the larger capacity overhead bins as a step in the right direction.
“We’ve all had bags delayed or lost over the years,” Edmonds said. “That’s a huge issue. There’s nothing like facilitating a senior leadership session in jeans to eliminate one’s confidence in airline baggage handling. We business travelers have also had our bags returned to us ripped, torn, filthy, and sopping wet. All that leads to reduced trust.”
I’m a fan of anything that helps the current boarding process, but I’m weary of overhead bins with more space. I fear that it will encourage people to sneak on larger bags, or perhaps try to bring an additional bag, resulting in even more delays. The bins also require reeducation of fliers. In the larger bins, suitcases sit on their sides rather than flat.
“There are two dreams that airlines have never been able to fulfill,” said Michael Friedman, an analyst for Delaware Investments, a member of Macquarie Group. “One is figuring out a way to let everyone get their luggage on the airplane, and number two is finding a boarding process that makes sense.”
Whoever finally devises the perfect boarding process should be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize. Until that time we’ll continue to endure laboriously slow lines and too much groin-to-face time, and we’ll keep swatting away at those gate lice.
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther