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House bill would have feds policing airline carry-on luggage

Unless you're a white-knuckle flier, the worst part of an airline trip might go something like this:

Luggage in tow, you shuffle down the aisle searching for space in an overhead bin. One after the next is stuffed with bulging duffle bags and roll-aboards the size of microwave ovens. You wedge your bag into a bin in the rear of coach, then jostle through other passengers back to your seat.

Air travelers increasingly gripe about hassles caused by too many big carry-on bags, a result of so many full planes and, perhaps, passengers trying to avoid airline fees for checked luggage.

An Illinois congressman has proposed a fix: set federal standards for the size of carry-on luggage and give Transportation Security Administration officers the job of policing oversize bags.

A bill introduced last month by Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Chicago Democrat, would limit the dimensions to a maximum of 50 linear inches (22 inches long by 18 inches high by 10 inches wide). That's slightly more than the 45 inches allowed by most U.S. airlines.

Lipinski thinks airlines do a lousy job enforcing their size rules. They count on ticket agents and rent-a-cops at security checkpoint lines to spot carry-on luggage that exceeds size limits. Too often, travelers with big bags reach the gate, where airline employees can be too busy getting flights out on time.

Flight attendants are the last line of defense. But that takes away from their primary safety responsibilities, such as watching for suspicious passengers and ensuring bags are stowed securely so they don't tumble out in flight, says the Association of Flight Attendants, which supports the bill.

For flight attendants like 24-year veteran Latisha Heffernan of Tampa, oversize carry-ons are a health hazard as well. Lifting carry-ons — and reaching inside bins to shift them around — left her with recurring pain from three herniated discs in her neck and torn shoulder tendons.

"Carry-ons seem like they're getting bigger," said Heffernan, who can't identify her employer under company policy. "Business travelers always bring a roll-aboard with a laptop bag, Now, vacation travelers are, too."

But is this really a problem that demands a federal takeover?

Airlines were deregulated three decades ago. Standardizing the size of carry-ons would keep carriers from allowing bigger bags on wide-body planes than on cramped regional jets, says David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association.

"Why would you want to prevent that if airplanes are configured with larger overhead bins?" he said. "Let the airlines determine the needs of customers."

Some of those customers counter that airlines brought the crush of carry-ons on themselves. What busy traveler wants to risk losing checked luggage during a connection in Atlanta or waste time waiting at baggage claim?

Business travel columnist Joe Brancatelli raises a better question: Do road warriors really want the TSA taking on the additional role of bag-size cop?

Stopping oversize luggage before owners reach the gate might speed up the boarding process. But you'll lose that time, maybe more, in longer and slower airport screening lines.

"This is something people ought to be able to work out," he said. "This is not why air travel sucks."

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

House bill would have feds policing airline carry-on luggage 07/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 1:25pm]
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