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Will More Airlines Charge for Oversize Carry-On Bags?

Should—or will—the major airlines charge for oversize carry-on bags? Some carriers already do. And The New York Times reports that more airlines may charge extra for carry-on baggage that exceeds a standard size.

If you’ve been on an airplane lately, chances are you’ve observed someone stuffing—or at least trying to stuff—a huge oversize carry-on bag into an already crowded overhead bin. This process results in two consequences, both bad: slowing down the boarding process and taking up bin room needed by other travelers. Most of the flights I’ve been on recently have been full or close to full, and I’ve seen both effects on all of them.

Even though airlines are installing larger bins these days, they never seem to have enough space to accommodate everything travelers want to stash there. Certainly, airlines can blame themselves for some of the problem: By charging for checked baggage, airlines are encouraging travelers to carry on as much as possible.

But the result is that departure is delayed as late-boarding travelers search up and down the aisle for available space. And when the bins are full and provide no more room, the gate-checking of baggage further delays departure. Inadequate bin space also puts pressure on travelers to try to push ahead of their assigned boarding group to secure some of that scarce space. The new charges might address some of these problems.

Discouraging too-large carry-on bags would also be a financial benefit to the airlines. Airlines love fees. A few small lines—led by Spirit—already charge a stiff fee for anything larger than a tiny carry-on that can fit under a tiny seat, and Alaska charges extra for oversize bags routinely.

The idea, then, looks like a win-win for airlines, and is therefore likely to develop traction. I suspect the result will come out this way:

  • Airlines will establish reasonable and firm limits on carry-on bag size. Those bag-size templates you see around most airports today are a joke; they obviously haven’t been calibrated to today’s typical bag sizes, and they’re totally ignored. Ideally, the airlines could get together, through Airlines for America (A4A), their trade association, to agree on an acceptable standard size.
  • Each airline will establish its own fee schedule, but the fees will be significantly lower for travelers who pay in advance than for those who are forced to check at the gate.
  • The system won’t work unless the airlines adopt a zero-tolerance policy for travelers whose baggage exceeds standards.

I’m not in favor of piling on the fees. But the oversize checked-baggage problem degrades the flying experience for everyone, so this is one fee that might do some good. Let’s wait and see what happens.

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