Airline passengers go to war over bin space

If mentioning the word “overhead bin” doesn’t raise your blood pressure, maybe you haven’t flown recently.

But John Masters has. On a recent AirTran Airways flight, the Wichita, Kan., legal assistant noticed that the airline made every effort to persuade passengers to check their bags. Many refused.

One air traveler seated near him then laid claim to an overhead compartment that’s meant to store carry-ons for four passengers.

“He proceeded to shove his oversize, rolling steamer trunk into the overhead, followed by the camera bag that was strapped to it, then took off his backpack and topcoat and added them to the overhead,” Masters says. “His baggage alone took up nearly the entire overhead compartment.”

Flight attendants say the overhead bin space is the number-one reason passengers fight with each other and with crewmembers. The conflict has only escalated since many major airlines, including AirTran, began charging for the first checked bag. While this made the airline industry profitable again, it only ratcheted up tensions on the plane.

“Many more people are bringing a carry-on that’s generally larger than before,” says Jon Kapecki, a frequent flier and technology consultant in Rochester, NY. “The result is that there is often insufficient room in the overhead bins.”

What’s the fix?

We could turn back the clock on the airline baggage fees. Already, one travel industry group is urging airlines to quote a fare that includes one checked bag (PDF) and the Senate is considering a bill that would require airlines to let air travelers check a bag “for free.” But critics fear that could plunge the industry into bankruptcy.

We could go the other way. That’s right, we could start charging airline passengers for their carry-ons. Ridiculous? Sure, but Spirit Airlines did it in 2010 and is earning $50 million a year from the fee. About 20 percent of its customers pay to bring their bag into the main cabin, according to a recent study (PDF). The rest travel light – and doesn’t that solve the problem in a kind of twisted way?

We could let the market solve the problem. That’s the solution Masters will get the next time he flies on AirTran. The airline has been acquired by Southwest Airlines, which famously has a “bags fly free” policy. (In other words, it includes the price of checking luggage into its fares.) Passengers basically said they preferred that approach to the bags-don’t-fly-free policy of the major airlines and they voted with their wallets.

Ah, a market solution. That should make every right-leaning reader cheer.

Kapecki isn’t so sure. He’s critical of Southwest’s approach, particularly its “early bird” fee that lets you board the aircraft before everyone else, staking a claim to the bin space above your seat. Airlines, he says, aren’t missing a chance to “monetize any form of customer discomfort.”

“In effect,” he adds, “they’re making passengers pay for a problem the airlines created.”

Will any of these steps put an end to the overhead bin wars? Probably not.

But it’s worth a try.

(Photo: Carib b/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • cjr001

    The way by which the airlines measure carry-on bags is all about forcing people into checking bags. It is not about whether the bags will fit.

    They let me carry it on, so apparently they didn’t care very much about their own rules in the first place.

    But you can take your complaints about whether the rules apply to me or not and put it on those who carry several bags on, or expect others to lift their heavy bags into the bins, and so on.

  • fordmann

    Not too long ago I flew from BWI to ROC for a brief stay, so I had a small carry on bag.  When I boarded the aircraft there was no space in the overhead above my seat and I was instructed by the flight crew to put my bag further down the cabin where there was plenty of room.  I was a little irritated as I had to wait upon landing until the cabin emptied to go back and get my bag.  I noticed at the end of the flight that the bags taking up my overhead space were CREW bags.  That really made me angry, why CREW doesn’t use the space in the rear is beyond me.  I should have written AirTran to complain but didn’t want to waste my time just to hear them say some “canned” response.

  • scapel

    Checking one bag is not free. Just make the flight charge include one checked bag. Now the airlines had been doing that and some business travelers  without checked baggage were paying without checking any bags as that is what the ticket cost. Airlines were doing ok then. Now they wanted to up the fees indirectly. Dirty pool. If you have to charge more for a ticket to be profitable then do it and let one checked bag be included in the ticket price. Argument stopped.
    Now possibly stricter rules about carry on might be inforced. I have down sized my carry on becaues I’m gettint too old to drag a bigger case around.

  • flutiefan

    also note that in industry parlance for the baggage claims office, those carry-ons you’re talking about have a code of “22”. that’s actually their official number.

  • flutiefan

    our boarding agents in the airport make that announcement before boarding starts, i make that announcement *during* boarding, and then the flight attendants are making the same announcement while on the plane. and you’re so right…no one listens! i even tell people at the ticket counter, when they show me their 2 items, “you have to put one of those underneath the seat in front of you. you can’t put them both in the overhead bin”. i just hope that 1 in 4 heeds my instruction, after they’ve heard it 3 more times.

  • flutiefan

    we had those in PHL. then the TSA complained that they were getting too many complaints! oh the irony…

  • flutiefan

    really? never?

    they fly $59 one-way NYC-Chicago. the web specials which are available until the day of departure or until they’re sold out have a max of $139. i don’t see United doing that. 
    you’re just not looking or you don’t get the jump on the lower prices. they ARE there. they just sell out, and rightfully so.

  • flutiefan

    THANK YOU!!! 
    my ol’ roomie has worked there for years, and i worked along side them for many years at my last airport. the notion that they are “always higher” is so ridiculous.

  • flutiefan

    thank you. as a fellow airline employee, i have had the exact same thing happen. “i’ve always carried this bag on!” is heard daily. maybe so, but was the extension always out, bursting at the zipper seams, with 2 pairs of shoes stuffed in the outer pockets, making it bulge like a pregnant suitcase?

     (can you tell i hate the roller bags with extendable zippers to make it bigger!?)

    we do the same thing at our ticket counters in the 5 airports i’ve worked at. many times, the passengers try to conceal the true size of their bags, or they hide their purses (which would be their 3rd bag), by using a coat to cover it up. and then we get blamed when the other passengers see they have too many items.

  • flutiefan

    when labor costs are usually the #1 expense for airlines (on par with jet fuel), no it would not offset the costs nearly enough.

  • flutiefan

    it’s funny, at my airport we DO survey the bags and we DO make passengers check them before boarding. but we are nowhere near the size of some of the other airports i’ve been at, where that i just not feasible. when your agent is 4 gates away for check in, how on earth can they see if everyone’s bags fit?! the boarding agent has the job of getting the inbound people off the plane, then quickly getting the people in the terminal on board the aircraft, for an on-time departure. they are doing this constantly, from gate to gate, back-to-back. there just isn’t TIME to note everyone’s bags and carry-on sizes as they quickly (try to) get everyone on the plane. we make constant announcements but it’s just falling on deaf ears. it’s the “this doesn’t apply to me” mentality. and we would LOVE to have someone up there to police the carry-ons, but you think any airline these days is going to create that position and hire that many people?! you’re delusional! we are a skeleton crew as it is, bare bones and shrinking, doing way more with way less.  has been this way since 2001.

    now, currently with my small operation we DO notice this stuff. and every day we are yelled at and complained to when we tell a customer that they have too many items or their bag is too big. they go positively NUTS. can’t win!

  • AirlineEmployee

    This would not work….cargo is actually much higher in price to ship (having worked in cargo for many years before my current ticket counter job).   Also the restrictions for cargo are more involved; staging, airwaybills, etc.   It can really be simple if hoggish, bullish, selfish people didn’t “insist” on their “rights”, which are usually blatently wrong requests or demands.

  • AirlineEmployee

    These three suggestions are what would work – every time !!

  • AirlineEmployee

    It would also probably require speed-dial to the local airport police when loud, thick-headed passengers insist on their “rights” and try to tell agents what THEY think is right or what they should get, what they have done “a millions times before”.  
    We go back to the squeaky wheel gets the oil.   Unfortunately you will never have all employees on the same page.  I’ve seen agents just waive things away because they are afraid of any “discomfort” – translation – they can’t take the heat of an obnoxious demanding passenger so they give in – whether it be at the gate or the ticket counter.  I’ve seen supervisors cave in many times, again, because they are concerned about numbers, no complaints, getting the planes out on time to satisfy the DOT.   It’s a bottomless pit of spineless ‘frady-cats who just perpetuate wrongdoers who will only continue their bad behavior flight after flight.

  • bodega3

    Was it this bad before your carrier started charging for checked bags? 

  • Spysea

    this is what you get ….. thats why I fly SWA and avoid bankrupt AA who started the bag fee scam , why is it that a bag of 50lbs cost more than my 50lbs daughters ticket? each seat should come with a bag to check for a reasonable amount not a set fee , should be based on the fare and or miles flown

  • Cheap Flights

    On top of that, enforce the use of the storage area in front of your seats. Not to mention, only using the overhead bins above or adjacent to your seat… not the one in the front of the plane when you sit in the back.

  • Tygar


    I dont go NY-Chicago or the other places you people listed.

    It should be understood that a person is talking about WHERE THEY FLY.

    I always check SW cause I don’t want bag fees, but it has never been cheaper so I HAVE NEVER FLOWN THEM.

    Get a life.

  • BlondieDC

    It was pretty bad before.  Now, it’s significantly worse.  =(

  • flutiefan

    wow “get a life”…really? smh.

  • flutiefan

    we must work with/for the same people LOL

  • Chasmosaur

    I’m with you.
    My husband and I just came back from our Christmas trip (MSP to SYR).  Both being experienced travelers, we debated really stripping down our luggage and carrying on, but ultimately we decided that we would check one large bag instead to have a little more clothing available on our 8 day trip.  I even wore a long sweater and packed my coat to save OHB space and seat space.

    We still carried on – my husband had one small roller bag with a quick change of clothes and our grooming items (in which he stowed his coat after the security checkpoint); I carried a small carry on with various meds and electronics along with my purse.  A very neat, tidy, and get from A to C DTW terminal in 20 minute friendly luggage configuration.

    Our bags fit in those carry-on boxes with room to spare. But
    as I looked around the lounge, though, it amazed me what people brought as carry-on bags.  Roller + carry-on + laptop bag + purse for several women.  Suitcases that were only a cumulative 3-4″ smaller than the large bag we had checked. Several oversized duffels that I wouldn’t even want to schlep through the airport.  I’m still at a loss as to how the huge guy with the stuffed oversized Target plastic bag (the kind for extra-large items) got it through the aisle, let alone in stowage space.

    I know airline employees are overworked – I’m related to a few of them.  But I’m still at a loss as to why no one came around and checked for bags too big for the overhead.  I know for a particular United flight I take on a regional jet, about 5-10 minutes before they start announcing boarding, to go around to hand out gate-check tickets – why can’t they do that for every flight? 

    Or better yet – after boarding first class, passengers needing assistance and elites (because the elite flyers would not be happy if you eliminated that perq), why can’t airlines board from the back of the plane and keep people from stowing their baggage rows ahead fo their seats?  Why does it have to get to a point where it becomes open warfare?  Because we know some travelers are simply not polite and/or experienced enough to realize they should only take up so much space with their carry-ons.

  • Chasmosaur

    As I read your comment, I couldn’t help but think about a flight my family took from Walt Disney World in the mid-90’s.   I’m not saying I get why families pack like they are on a North Pole expedition for a 90 minute flight and are allowed to get away with it, but just pointing out airlines weren’t always so forgiving.

    We had nine seats together (seven adults, two kids 6 and 4), and had checked all of our luggage.  Other than the women’s purses, the only carry-ons we had were a single small carry-on of “kid stuff” that was going under a seat, and a bare-bones travel stroller that folded up with an extra set of hinges so the handles tucked over the seat, making a neat, overhead-bin friendly package.  (It had been specifically bought for the trip and had been researched for this exact purpose.)

    The flight was mostly business-travelers instead of Disney-visiting families, and no pre-boarding was offered for parties with small children.  (I’m guessing in Orlando, that’s probably a moot point.) By the time our middle-of-the-plane rows were boarding, our bins and the ones in front of those were already full.  My brother-in-law stashed the folded stroller in the nearest bin – as others from our part of the plane were doing with their luggage – and thought nothing of it.  (Especially since he took that flight on a regular basis for business and knew family travel was SOP for this route.)

    Until one FA – looking for more bin space for one or two passengers – loudly declared our stroller was entirely too big and had to be gate checked.  My father quietly and firmly pointed out that it was smaller than the bag next to it.  He also pointed out that it had been acceptable to the flight crew when we flew down the week before. And as he had purchased 9 seats, surely he was allowed a small portion of a single bin, since that was the only carry-on we stowed?

    Her response was to yell at us, tell us we hadn’t put the stroller in “our” bin so she could do with it what she liked – including throw it away – and ultimately fetched the pilot. Because after her being so unnecessarily and explosively harsh, my father politely, calmly and firmly refused to let the stroller be gate checked. My father eventually prevailed (I always thought it was because he quietly informed the pilot his fly was down), and the stroller stayed.  The business traveler from the back of the plane who had taken most of a bin with 5 pieces of luggage ended up getting several of them gate checked, room was made, and we got underway.

    We thought it was all done, but as we were pushing away from the gate, the captain got on the PA system and apologized for the delay, saying “We had some rude passengers who required my attention, it’s how it goes sometimes.” 

    So my father got all the names of the relevant flight crew and wrote a politely scathing letter to the airline including a picture of the folded stroller, our multiple gate check receipts, and our seat numbers. They ended up giving him a free ticket for his next flight.

  • Debbie Lott

    I scuba dive, which is a fairly equipment intensive hobby.  Fins, skins and BCDs go into a checked bag.  Regulator, mask and dive computer go in a carry on.  There’s no way I would try to get it all in a carry-on to avoid paying a $25 checked bag fee.  It’s not only against policy, but it could potentially aggravate my fellow travelers.  It’s  no all about me ~ and the last thing I want on a vacation is a confrontation with airline staff or my fellow passengers.  

    I think if people are not following the rules, then it’s up the airlines to enforce them.   

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  • Madbunny

    I have flown from Ca to Ks eight times since Apr 2011,and not once on any of those flights have I seen anybody use the under seat space.On 2 of those I checked a suitcase,and just had a small purse
    and on the rest i got tired of paying fifty bucks for my luggage,so I downsized to a backpack and do with less.I carry a tote with my laptop and I put my purse in that and it goes under the seat.I layer a few sweaters on my body and yes,it gets hot but saves space.I have made it a game to see just how light I can travel now.
    I find that I am usually like group 3 or 4 so I board last and find it annoying that people fill up the overhead bins in the front even if that is not where they are sitting.I always thought that the overhead at your assigned seat was where you put your stuff.That should be a rule.I also wonder my backpack is smaller than code
    being 19in long by 13w but it is over 10 deep if i fill the front pocket
    so with the 3 inch minus on length am i ok with the extra 2 in depth
    making it overall 45 inches? So far it has been ok.And I think the airlines should maybe just lower the bag fee to say 15$ Just my 2cents :-)

  • passiotech is a mobile vehicle app designed to get QUICK, ACCURATE, & most especially, helps in knowing, technology, parking management, passenger counting, or the bus system. The system supplies amply machine-driven data collection and describing features plus One Touch Passenger Counting.