When United announced earlier this month that it would begin strictly enforcing the size restrictions on carry-on bags, there was the predictable outcry from flyers. Or outcries, really. There were moans of "Big Brother!" And groans of "More bag fees!"
Sure, after many years of mostly ignoring its own published size guidelines for carry-ons, the airline's sudden clamp-down feels arbitrary and heavy-handed.
And there's no doubt that at least part of United's motivation for the change in practice is the very real prospect of collecting more fees for bags that will now have to be checked instead of rolled aboard.
Nevertheless, this is a case where the best interests of United and its customers are more in alignment than they are in opposition.
The size guidelines, let's remember, are designed to keep travelers from carrying on bags that won't fit in the overhead bins. That means a much smoother boarding process. No bottlenecks caused by passengers unable to store their oversized bag. No frantic dashes against the flow of traffic to find storage space elsewhere in the cabin. No confrontations between panicked passengers and stressed flight attendants.
If the few rule-breakers are forced to pony up checked-bag fees, that's a small price to pay for the reduction in hassle and stress experienced by those who abide by the rules.
What's been missing—at United, and just about every other airline as well—is the will to enforce the long-in-place guidelines. Have you ever seen a passenger using a baggage sizer to determine whether his bag is over or under the limit? I haven't. And really, there's no incentive for doing so, or penalty for not doing so. The airlines have tolerated non-compliance for so long that it's become the rule.
Speaking of penalties, have you ever seen a gate agent pull aside a passenger with an obviously oversized bag and demand that it be checked? In my years of flying, I can count the number of times I've witnessed that scenario on one hand. And that's entirely understandable: Like most of us, gate agents are conflict-averse. They don't want to spend their working lives arguing with customers. It's easier to just let it slide.
It remains to be seen how strict United's enforcement will be. Scofflaws won't be deterred by policy changes. And the tendency among airline workers to look the other way won't be easily reversed.
But if all goes according to plan, the shift will be a nice upgrade for most United flyers, as well as for United's bottom line.
Reader Reality Check
Have you seen a difference in United's carry-on enforcement since the policy change was announced?
Has United's boarding process noticeably improved, or not?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.