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Delta tilts carry-on war to passengers

The balance has shifted significantly again in the airline industry's carry-on bag wars. Delta Air Lines, the world's largest carrier, is retrofitting overhead bins in most of its airplanes to allow more storage for passengers' carry-on bags.

Last year, Continental Airlines defied the industry trend toward tighter storage and stingier allowances for carry-on bags when it completed a $20-million project to enlarge overhead bins in its entire fleet. As some competitors grumbled and the major flight attendants union asked the federal government to limit passengers to a single carry-on bag, Continental proclaimed that its customers were welcome to bring on a reasonable amount of carry-on baggage _ even more than two, provided space was available.

Earlier this year, Delta put some of its aircraft through a three-month trial with bigger overhead bins allowing for more carry-on bags. The results were conclusive, said Vicki Escarra, Delta's executive vice president for customer service.

"We found that it helped us to board the airplane about five to eight minutes faster," she said. That's because people become seated more quickly when they are not struggling and sometimes battling over carry-on bags and limited space.

Delta, which with US Airways is the largest carrier operating at Tampa International Airport, has now redesigned overhead bins to accommodate more carry-on bags on about 10 percent of its long-range 757s and medium-range MD-88 planes. Within nine months, the carrier hopes to have more spacious overhead bins in about 240 of those planes, which are the workhorses of its fleet. In all, about 80 percent of the Delta fleet will have bigger carry-on bins.

Saving time is the main reason for this and other changes in Delta's approach to boarding airplanes, Escarra said. In the last year, she said, "we've made a huge investment, close to a billion dollars on improving airport technology," installing electronic check-in kiosks and other services to reduce lines at airports. That done, Delta turned its attention to carry-on storage and decided to follow Continental's lead, although Delta will still enforce a two-bag limit for carry-ons.

Escarra said of the trial run, "I thought we'd get some improvement in boarding times and on-time departure but didn't expect it in the seven- to eight-minute range." That, in addition to a substantial improvement in boarding times thanks to the new airport gate technology, is a direct appeal to business travelers. "When you talk to business travelers about what is important to them, 80 to 90 percent will tell you being on time," shesaid.

She said Delta agreed with Continental on overhead storage and the need to reduce boarding time. "The strategies are very much the same, although they have not made nearly the investments that we have around improvements in technology."

Continental had sued Delta for installing templates over the mouths of X-ray belts at the San Diego airport, restricting the openings to limit the size of carry-ons. Continental also sued United over similar templates at Dulles International Airport in Washington, and threatened a lawsuit in Denver before the matter was settled out of court.

Continental declined to comment _ much _ on Delta's move. "What is it they say, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery?" said Michele Treacy, a spokeswoman for Continental, who reiterated the airline's position on carry-ons: "Our customers should be able to bring on what they want, within reason. Our customers don't want to be told the size of the bag they can bring on _ or how many."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.

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