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Airline baggage: What's filling the overhead bin space?

Overstuffed carry-on bags get the blame for overhead bin space shortage, but there are other factors.

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Overstuffed carry-on bags get the blame for overhead bin space shortage, but there are other factors.

We all love easy answers to life's pesky problems.

An unusually sweltering week in May? Must be global warming. A news story we don't like? The left-wing media conspiracy (or right-leaning Fox News).

On a recent US Airways flight from Washington, D.C., to Tampa, the problem was finding a place to stash Roll-Aboard luggage and bulky suit bags somewhere close to our seats. The guy seated next to me nodded knowingly. "It's because of those baggage fees," he groused.

Maybe. But my guess is probably not. Like betting on thoroughbreds, figuring out the disappearing overhead bin space puzzle involves figuring out a lot of moving parts.

A year ago, critics predicted chaos in the cabins when American Airlines announced plans to start charging customers to check a bag on domestic flights, the first major U.S. airline to do so.

Travelers unwilling to pay the fees would lug aboard two big bags and scuffle in the aisles for scarce space in the overhead bins, they said. Flight attendants would try to wrestle away bulging American Touristers for a gate-check. The result: even more delayed flights and surly attitudes.

One prediction did come true. Other airlines fell into lockstep with American. You can expect to pay at least $15 each way for one checked bag and $25 for the second. Only Southwest and regional carrier ExpressJet give you two bags free, while JetBlue charges for more than one. (Elite-level fliers and international travelers typically are exempt).

Customers still grump. Airlines say the number of carry-ons has increased little, if at all. At American, passengers are checking fewer bags — from an average of 1.2 per person to less than one. "The biggest change is far fewer second checked bags," spokesman Tim Smith said. "They're consolidating (belongings) in one bag or downsizing what they take."

So, what's causing the squeeze on storage space in the cabin? Take your choice of reasons:

• Many flights are jam-packed. Demand for airline tickets is down with the sour economy. But airlines started slashing flights and flying smaller aircraft last year. American, Delta and US Airways reported their planes were more than 80 percent full overall in April. That means lots of flights with no empty seats during the popular times to fly.

• Busy business routes are always competitive for carry-on space. Frequent fliers know the hazards of losing bags on a business trip. Most would rather get stuck in the middle seat on a trans-Atlantic flight than hand their bags over at the ticket counter.

• Old planes mean less room. It took a while for airlines and plane manufacturers to catch up with the trend toward more and bigger carry-on luggage. Your odds of finding a spacious overhead bin is better on a newer plane.

One more tidbit for thought: We didn't see the impact of bag fees on carry-on space during last summer's travel season. Airlines exempted customers who bought tickets by early June or later — including the vast majority of infrequent fliers and kids on vacation.

Will they walk down the aisles this summer loaded down like pack animals on safari? Nobody knows that answer.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Airline baggage: What's filling the overhead bin space? 05/26/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 11:34am]
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