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Originally published March 11, 2014 at 12:29 PM | Page modified March 11, 2014 at 12:57 PM

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A closer look at United’s carry-on crackdown

United Airlines is more vigorously enforcing its restrictions on the size of carry-on bags.


The New York Times

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There is a lot of strong opinion about carry-on bags and limited space in overhead bins on airplanes, as I noted when I first reported here about that raging controversy.

That would have been, oh ... 15 years ago, when flight attendants were starting to complain that baggage-handling and stowage had become an unpleasant new part of their jobs, as air travel soared and planes became more crowded. Passengers were also complaining loudly about other passengers and the oversize bags some persisted in lugging on board.

Incidentally, back then in 1999, the average plane flew at 71 percent capacity. Last year, it was close to 85 percent. On most routes, airplanes have been flying totally full for several years.

So why all the current commotion about carry-on bags? Long story short, United Airlines decided a few months ago to install new bag-sizer racks at its airport counters and gates, to emphasize long-established restrictions on size limits: 9 inches wide, 14 inches long and 22 inches high for carry-on bags, and 9 by 10 by 17 inches for the allowable “personal item,” like a laptop.

Then, last month, United emailed frequent-flier members who were booked for flights in the near future, reminding them of the carry-on size restrictions. The airline also notified employees to pay more attention to the issue because “we were getting too many complaints from customers about us not being able to accommodate their bags” in overhead bins, said Rahsaan Johnson, a United spokesman.

Given confusion about what some media accounts called United’s crackdown on bags as a ploy by the airline to raise more money from fees it charges to check bags instead, I asked United to answer some questions about what is going on.

But first, I also want to ask readers for their own opinions and recent experiences on all airlines regarding carry-ons and overhead bins. And I also might point out that airlines themselves have been a little coy about carry-ons and bins.

Back in 1999, for example, Continental Airlines, which merged with United in 2010, announced opposition to proposed federal rules limiting the size of carry-ons and promoted the fact that it had installed bigger overhead bins on its planes as a customer service. And just last year, American Airlines promoted larger bin space on its 76-seat regional jet fleet. Other airlines, including United, have also promoted better bin space. What’s the story, United?

“You’ve heard us talk a lot about expanded bins on new aircraft deliveries, retrofitting the Airbus airplanes with larger bins that will hold larger bags,” Johnson said. “But the objective here is to accommodate more customers, not necessarily to accommodate bigger bags.”

So what’s changed? Nothing except for the emphasis on regulation size, he said, adding that United is trying to stop oversize bags at airport terminal lanes where its representatives inspect their passengers’ passes before the security gates. Passengers with too-big bags will then be directed back to ticketing counters to check the bag at the usual $25 fee. But oversize carry-ons that make it as far as the departure gate continue to be flagged for gate-checking, without a passenger having to return to the terminal to check the bag at the $25 fee.

“The process at the gate is the same. If you get to the gate and your bag is larger than our carry-on acceptance, the agent checks the bag there as he or she has always done, and there’s no charge to the customer at the gate,” he said.

Johnson said he couldn’t discuss whether United might have plans to set up a way to charge customers for an oversize bag that gets checked at the gate — something all airlines are believed to be considering.

Bags of money

Airlines have made a lot of extra money since checked-bag fees were widely imposed starting six years ago. In 2012, U.S. airlines raised $3.5 billion from checked-bag charges, according to the Transportation Department. But the growth in reported revenue for checked bags has slowed — it was $887.9 million in the third quarter of 2013 compared with $924.2 million in the year-earlier third quarter. That doesn’t mean fewer passengers are checking bags. Instead, it reflects the heavy promotions that airlines have made marketing their own for-fee, branded credit cards, most of which carry benefits including a free checked bag.

Airlines unquestionably are planning to raise more in the future so-called ancillary revenue on extra fees for various services, checked bags among them.

“We generated $2.8 billion from ancillary revenue in 2013 and expect to grow this by approximately 8 percent in 2013-14,” James E. Compton, United’s chief revenue officer, told investors in an earnings call in January.

He was referring to all such fees, not just revenue from checked bags.

But United’s renewed emphasis on blocking oversize carry-ons “has nothing to do with revenues. This is solely about ensuring that the greatest number of customers whose bags are in line with the size limits are able to get those bags onto the airplane,” Johnson said.

Only a small minority of passengers flout the size regulations, he said, adding: “When we hear complaints about the boarding process in general, they are overwhelmingly from customers who say, ‘I am playing by the rule as it relates to carry-ons, and you are not enforcing your own rules against people who are not playing by those rules.”



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