A modest proposal: Let's ban large carry-ons altogether, and make checked bags free again

April 14, 2010
Fares from Washington DC:

    A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate yesterday would ban airlines from charging for carry-on luggage, according to Reuters. Two senators rightly point out that carry-ons often contain items that are "important for the safety and health" of travelers, including medication and eyewear.

    But can we please keep in mind that Spirit Airlines' now infamous decision to charge for carry-on luggage only applies to items too large to fit in the seat in front of the passenger. You can still carry on personal items for free, and that would include a large purse, brief case, or backpack into which you can stuff whatever essentials or valuables you desire. Coats, strollers, cameras, and certain other items are also carried in-cabin for free.

    But let's get real here. To avoid looking disingenuous, Spirit should simply ban carry on bags altogether rather than making them a profit center. And the US Congress should let airlines conduct business as they see fit, and if it really cares about airline passengers, instead legislate a solution to the real safety risks of carry-on luggage.

    Spirit's CEO, Ben Baldanza, with some justification, claims that the overhead bin fee will discourage carry-on overcrowding and lead to safer air travel, both for flight attendants and passengers, who are sometimes injured when lifting heavy bags into the bins and by bags falling out of the bins, despite the airlines' constant "bags do tend to shift in flight" PA announcements. 

    But most likely, safety isn't the real issue here, at least not for an airline CEO. Baldanza also suggests that the airline will be able to board and deplane their aircraft faster, which implies that Spirit will profit by faster airport turnarounds, and thus be able to complete more flights per day and earn more revenue per plane (or fly more passengers with fewer multi-million dollar jets).

    Is safety the real issue here?

    But if safety is really the issue, then the airline should ban large carry-ons altogether, rather than charging for them. Is a carry-on that is charged $45 any safer than one riding for free? Of course not.  Indeed, in the infancy of commercial aviation, there were no overhead bins at all, just hat racks into which it was forbidden to place even the smallest flight bag or other hard object. Everything else went under the seat. (OK, OK, the seats were spaced farther apart, granted.)

    In any case, the US Congress should back off.  if Spirit or any other airline decides to ban larger-sized carry-ons for safety reasons or to charge for them for revenue-enhanhcement reasons or to discourage passengers from using the overhead bins altogether, then that's their business. If the government were really consumer focused, they should recognize the health hazards of large carry-on luggage and encourage airlines to ban the practice altogether, following Spirit's model of only permitting smaller carry-ons that fit under the seat.

    And there are about a thousand other things Congress should focus on when it comes to air travel, such as fixing the air traffic control system.

    Then we could go back to the old model of free checked baggage, or not. But that should be the airlines' decision.  Or maybe passengers will finally "get it" that the airlines don't want to be carrying their luggage in the first place, and they'd learn the pleasures of 5-day FedEx Ground delivery service, at least on domestic flights.

    Airlines could save millions, and offer free checked baggage once again

    Although putting an end to large carry-on bags, whether free or paid, would require the airlines to hire more baggage handlers and check in staff, who are paid relatively modest wages, most likely the carriers would come out ahead by boarding and deplaning planes far faster than currently possible. It doesn't take an airline CEO with an MBA to figure out that if every one of the thousands of flights flown in the US each day could shave 30 or 45 minutes off of their schedules by turning around quicker at the airport, then the airlines would save millions in equipment, fuel and the more expensive salaries paid to pilots, who often sit around doing nothing while passengers attempt to stuff bags in the overhead bins, blocking other passengers from reaching their seats. 

    With the money they save, airlines could once again offer free checked bags, just like in the good old days, when flying was fun.