The US Airlines’ Carry-On Bag Problem

Without a doubt the years leading up to 2008 were tough for US airlines. Soaring fuel prices are generally considered the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back when American Airlines was the first airline to begin charging passengers for checked bags. The other major US legacy airlines quickly followed. I can't blame them — the airlines needed a quick cash infusion to remain solvent. However, nine years later with the fear of bankruptcy far in the past these airlines are allowing these decisions made in rough times to continue to negatively impact the passenger experience.

Unbundling is a trendy term used mostly by ULCCs (Ultra Low Cost Carriers). Unbundling means to strip the amenities typically included in the price of a ticket and them offer them á la carte. Charging for checked bags was the first major attempt of the legacy US carriers at unbundling.

Leisure passengers and other infrequent fliers often choose to carry-on in order to avoid paying checked baggage fee. Who can blame them? The airlines are practically encouraging this behavior. Gate agents nearly always offer to check these bags free anyways.

Business travelers and other road warriors who fly a lot choose to carry-on because they know what a hassle checking bags is. The time spent waiting in line to check the bag combined with the time spend waiting at the baggage return carousel is wasted time for them. Plus there's always the risk that the bag or contents get damaged or go missing.

Airlines quickly saw the value of boarding groups as a way to manage the limited resource of overhead bin space. The earlier you can board, the better chance you had to find a place in the overhead bin to put your bag. Airlines offer earlier boarding to passengers with elite status, co-branded credit card holders, those with premium seats and those who were willing to pay extra for the privilege. However, this was a hamfisted attempt that only managed to treat the symptom of the bigger problem.

Any occasional traveler knows all too well how disorganized and chaotic the boarding area often is. The modern boarding area is a hostile environment where passengers jockey to board as soon as possible in hopes to find an overhead bin to place their bag. This is a disaster in terms of the passenger experience. When every passenger is motivated to bring their own bag on board, it makes the experience worse for everyone:

  • The boarding and deplaning process is much slower
  • It means that your most loyal customers are not guaranteed a place for their bag in the event that they arrive late to the gate (i.e. due to a tight connection)
  • The already undersized gate seating areas are even more crowded
  • Security checkpoints are slowed down

Here's my solution: airlines should charge passengers not only for checked bags but also carry-on bags. Blasphemy, I know. People hate fees. People hate feeling nickeled and dimed. However, unbundling is here to stay; it's a proven model. Airlines might as well embrace it in order to improve the experience for people willing to pay for it.

An American Airlines A321 – a typical domestic aircraft – only has room for 100 bags in the overhead bins. The plane has 187 total seats. That's allows for less than two of every three passengers to bring their carry-on on board. Overhead bin space is a limited resource. It should be treated as such by charging a reasonable fee in order to preserve supply for those willing to pay for it.

ULCCs like Spirit and Frontier charge for both checked bags and carry-on bags. In order to encourage the behavior of checking bags, they both charge slightly less (usually around $5 less) to check a bag than to bring the bag on board. There's no reason the legacy US airlines couldn't do the same.

The US legacy carriers have all rolled out Basic Economy fares in order to be able to compete with ULCCs and their unbundled fares. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but it doesn't go far enough. More needs to be done to improve the passenger experience.