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An overhaul due for oversized bags in overstuffed bins?

Checkpoint templates, strict size rules and a one-bag limit are among ideas. Some business travelers object.

February 26, 2006|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

IT'S a scene any flier will recognize:

"Passengers fight for control of overhead bins, pushing, shoving, hoisting and heaving huge, overstuffed bags into too little space."

Flight attendants referee, frustrated because "over the years, the amount of carry-on baggage that passengers have been permitted to bring aboard has increased."

Can anyone deny there's a crisis in carry-ons?

Apparently so, because these quotes are from a November 1998 petition that the Assn. of Flight Attendants filed with the Federal Aviation Administration. The union wanted the FAA to set and enforce a maximum size for carry-ons. The FAA turned the association down.

More than seven years later, it's still the Wild West in the world of carry-ons. Sure, we have the so-called one-plus-one limit -- one bag plus a personal item such as a purse, briefcase or laptop, but this rule seems to be enforced only sporadically. Bag size is a grab-bag, left up to each airline. What flies with Continental may be grounded by United.

Adding to the problem: With fewer seats and more passengers, jets push off from the gate fuller than ever, and wheeled bags make it easier for fliers to haul more weight to the gate.

Although reliable statistics are hard to find, many observers are convinced that we're cramming more stuff than ever into passenger cabins.

All this excess poundage causes injuries, delayed takeoffs and frayed nerves, flight attendants say. Passengers get hit by objects falling from bins, and attendants are injured while helping passengers stash heavy bags.

"Thousands of injuries linked to carry-on baggage occur each year," the union said in its 1998 petition.

Chris Witkowski, director of the air safety, health and security department at the union, said it did not take a position on how many carry-ons should be permitted. But, just as it urged in 1998, the group wants the size of carry-ons to be limited to 45 inches total -- the sum of length, width and height -- whether one bag or more.

Many airlines limit carry-ons to 45 inches total per bag, but some allow more. Continental, for instance, permits up to 51 inches per bag and JetBlue up to 50 inches (24 by 16 by 10 inches).

To cope with the crush of carry-ons, some airlines are adding storage. Deeper bins that American Airlines recently installed on its MD-80 fleet allow bags to be stored with wheels facing out, making room for -- what else? -- more bags.

But this can't go on forever. For one thing, ever-bigger overhead bins increase the risk of passengers hitting their heads, said American spokesman Tim Smith.

More radical solutions are being floated.

At hearings on Dec. 12, 2005, and Feb. 9, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce committee, said he would like each flier to be limited to one carry-on item of a fixed size. The idea of installing templates at checkpoints to block oversized bags was also raised.

The most viable idea may be a size limit. But as FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette and others note, different plane models have different bin designs, complicating the issue.

The Air Transport Assn., a trade organization of the major U.S. airlines, is forming a task force to look at a solution to carry-on problems, spokesman David Castelveter said.

"We recognize it's a growing concern," he said.

The one-per-person proposal may never get off the ground.

At the Dec. 12 committee hearing, the idea didn't fly with Jim May, the ATA's president and chief executive. Citing business fliers who want to carry on a bag plus a laptop or a purse, May said the current rule was "perfectly appropriate."

In separate interviews, Caleb Tiller, spokesman for the National Business Travel Assn. in Alexandria, Va., and Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa. -- two groups that represent corporate travel managers -- also opposed a one-bag limit.

Tiller said standing in line to check bags and waiting for them at the other end would have a "negative impact" on time-pressed executives.

Mitchell was more blunt.

"It would kill the business traveler," he said. "It would add to the complexity and chaos of business travel today."

As for templates to block oversized carry-ons at security checkpoints, that's already been tried, with mixed results.

In 1998, when airlines still supervised passenger screening, United pioneered templates at checkpoints it shared with Continental at Dulles airport in suburban Washington, D.C. The move, officials said, reduced boarding delays and injuries from bags falling out of bins.

But the templates became a contentious issue when Continental filed an antitrust suit against United, complaining that they blocked Continental's larger carry-ons.

In 2002, when the U.S. Transportation Security Administration took over passenger screening, it removed bag templates.

The TSA thought "it was a customer service issue for the industry, not a security issue," and that the templates would slow down security lines, said TSA spokesman Nico Melendez.

In any event, it's apparent that unless a universal size limit for carry-ons is adopted, templates at shared checkpoints aren't practical.

What remedy is left?

Well, next on the horizon may be inducements to get passengers to take less. There were hints at this idea at the Dec. 12 hearing.

"Why don't we give an incentive to people not to carry stuff on board planes?" Stevens asked TSA Administrator Kip Hawley.

Hawley replied, "That's, I think, an excellent idea, and it's something that we're exploring."

The TSA's Melendez said earlier this month that it was too early to specify what these measures might be.

In this era of revenue-hungry airlines, I'm not so sure that "incentives" are the answer.

But really, aren't you ready to try just about anything to tame the carry-on beast? I know I am.

*

Jane Engle welcomes comments but can't respond individually to letters and calls. Write to Travel Insider, L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st St., L.A., CA 90012, or e-mail jane.engle@latimes.com.

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