CHICAGO – Every airline passenger is entitled to overhead space, right?
Wrong. On a typical domestic flight, six passengers share luggage bins that accommodate four wheeled bags, at most, leaving some fliers out of luck at a time when more of them are opting to lug their bags, rather than check them, to avoid airline fees.
There are also more passengers competing for space because planes are again filled to near-record levels, the result of carriers’ capacity cuts and a rebound from last year’s recession.
Boarding lines, rarely speedy, now often move in reverse when the last luggage bins fill and passengers are forced to return to the jet bridge to check bags.
The next obsession, at least for passengers of Spirit Airlines, may be cramming items under airplane seats. The Florida discount carrier announced earlier this month that it would charge customers as much as $45 each way to place bulky items in overhead bins, in an effort to get people on and off its planes faster. Other airlines will watch Spirit’s experiment.
Airline staff and passengers are still trying to figure out how best to deal with the changes in boarding and behavior resulting from the fees on checked baggage, which were widely adopted as the travel market fell into a tailspin in 2008.
Since the start of last year, the number of bags checked at the boarding gate by Chicago-based United Airlines has risen nearly 50 percent, while the volume of bags checked at ticket counters has dropped 18 percent. At American Airlines, more passengers now carry on bags than check them.
“Flying definitely has changed over the last 18 months,” says Tom Parsons, CEO of BestFares.com, a low-cost travel Web site. “It’s a roller-bag derby.”
One year ago, when many flights were only two-thirds full, only four people sat in the six seats that share a bin.
Now, “in effect, you have 50 percent more contention for overhead space. What’s fine for four people isn’t for six,” says aviation consultant Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co.
“When you compare the storage space available on board today to 20 years ago, the per-passenger number has to be double, even triple, what it used to be. And, yet, it’s never enough.”
The fees and space constraints can contribute to a breakdown in social conventions, as passengers increasingly feel that they must fend for themselves.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” said Shelly Casale, a software consultant from Des Plaines, Ill., as she boarded a recent United Airlines flight at O’Hare International Airport bound for Boston.
Cabin baggage has been a growing inconvenience for airlines and passengers alike since the first wheeled luggage rolled onto the market in the early 1990s.
“The truth is, we’ve never had a good handle on this,” says Darryl Jenkins, founder of the Airline Zone, a Web site devoted to airline economics.
Carry-on bags didn’t become the primary type of luggage for passengers until carriers introduced fees for infrequent fliers and then raised them to $25 to check a first bag and $35 for a second item. United, among the first to adopt the fees, has seen the volume of checked bags fall for 25 consecutive months, says Cindy Szadokierski, United’s vice president of airport operations planning and United Express.
Every major U.S. airline except Southwest Airlines has introduced such fees since 2008, and no wonder. The 10 largest U.S. carriers collected $739.8 million in baggage charges during the third quarter of 2009, double prior-year totals, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
As planes fill and tensions rise, carriers are exploring ways to ease congestion in their aisles. American offers a valet service so travelers on its Eagle regional jets can easily hand off bags that don’t fit overhead. The Texas-based carrier also plans to begin scanning this luggage later this year to reduce the risk of its getting lost.
Airplane manufacturer Boeing Co. is finding a growing market for the new luggage compartments that it created for its 787 Dreamliner and revamped for its 747 and 737 jets. The hinged bins handle far larger bags than current compartments, giving every traveler access to overhead space.
Chicago-based Boeing anticipated the carry-on squeeze, designing the new bins before baggage fees were commonplace. Dozens of airlines have bought the new 737 interiors, says Kent Craver, Boeing’s regional director for passenger satisfaction and revenue.
“We want to remove things that cause anxiety,” he says. “People like to fly; they just don’t like to fly today.”
United is also assigning teams of workers to flights most prone to baggage meltdowns during peak holiday travel periods such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, a program it tested at O’Hare and is rolling out at other large airports.
The gate agents and ramp workers nab boarding customers with carry-on bags as the overhead bins fill and quickly tag and cart away that luggage to the cargo hold. They were on hand as Casale waited among the final group of passengers to board a packed Boeing 757 headed for Boston. As she stepped down the jet bridge, there were still 27 people waiting to follow her to the few remaining empty seats, and all but a couple of them clutched black roll-aboard bags.
On board, a flight attendant hurriedly repacked overhead bins at the rear of the plane, returning coats to their owners and setting bags on their sides to maximize the little remaining space. Gate agents, meanwhile, checked about 15 bags from the final boarding customers.
This is how it is supposed to work. But doesn’t always.
Carry-on complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation more than doubled last year, Chicago Tribune data show. They accounted for less than 1 percent of the total placed with the department and were offset by the fact that U.S. carriers lost 942,000 fewer checked bags in 2009 than in 2008.
Still, the complaints show people are irked and sometimes victimized by the bad behavior of other passengers or airline workers: belongings jammed in overstuffed bins falling out and striking travelers on the head, jewelry stolen from bags checked at the gate, and airline workers arbitrarily enforcing limits on bag size.
Flight attendants, forced to be both baggage cops and peacemakers, say they are paying a heavy toll. More than 80 percent claim they pulled muscles or felt pain while dealing with bags or bins, according to the Association of Flight Attendants.
Overhead space typically starts to become a concern for flight attendants about halfway through boarding, says Sara Nelson, a United flight attendant and spokeswoman for its flight attendants union.
The stress builds as the plane fills, since neither flight attendants, pilots, nor gate agents want to be blamed for a late departure. Injuries are likeliest in those last minutes before the door closes, as flight attendants rush to stow bags.
“Everybody feels the pressure,” Nelson says.
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