Carry-on bags still a weighty issue

Flying: The airlines continue to battle over the size and number of bags passengers are allowed to carry on board

Strategies.

January 24, 1999|By David Cay Johnston | David Cay Johnston,New York Times News Service

The major airlines are fighting one another over how many bags, and what size bags, passengers may carry on board. But instead of being pawns in the latest airline wars -- in which Continental is suing Delta, and the biggest flight-attendant union is asking the government to impose a uniform carry-on rule -- passengers can take some steps to improve their chances of getting their bags on board if they understand what's behind the battles.

The problems stem from the confluence of two trends: the growing popularity of large bags with wheels and record numbers of occupied seats. In the past five years the number of empty seats has dropped by a third, Transportation Department records show, heightening competition for the storage space in overhead bins.

Continental Airlines and US Airways, which are heavily dependent on short flights, are the most staunch opponents of strictly limiting carry-on bags.

"We want to accommodate our customers so they can bring aboard the baggage that they have," said Julie Gardner, a Continental spokeswoman.

Continental is spending $14 million, or about $80,000 a plane, to install deeper overhead bins on all but its oldest planes. The bins are 2.7 inches deeper, and provide enough extra room so that most bags with rollers can slide in bottom first, instead of having to be turned sideways.

In a move that drew wide attention to its policy of accommodating passengers with roller bags, Continental sued Delta Airlines on Nov. 24 for strictly enforcing tough carry-on baggage rules at Lindbergh International Airport in San Diego, where Delta controls Continental's security checkpoint. Delta, which said the suit lacks merit, uses a Plexiglas template to restrict the size of bags that pass through its X-ray machines.

United, which has jumbo bins on its 777 long-haul jumbo jets, is considering larger bins on its short-haul 737s, said Joe Hopkins, a spokesman. This is a sharp change from a year ago, when United experimented with a rule limiting passengers on discount tickets to one carry-on, which drew many complaints and was quickly ended.

But United has not given up on trying to persuade more passengers to check their bags. "We are trying to improve on-time departure performance," Hopkins said, "and we think we can do that by not having to check so many items at the last minute."

The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 42,000 members at 10 airlines, has petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to adopt a uniform rule on carry-on baggage so that its members do not get caught in disputes between airlines and passengers. The union fears that members could be disciplined unfairly, said Chris Witkowski, a union spokesman.

The government is being drawn into the debate because the airlines, through the Air Transport Association, a trade organization for 22 major passenger and cargo airlines, have been unable to agree on a one-rule-fits-all solution.

The use of templates at X-ray machines ignores a reality of soft-sided carry-ons: Most of them will compress to fit under a seat or in an overhead bin if air is squeezed out.

Hopkins, the United spokes-man, suggests carrying a plastic bag inside your soft-sided carry-on. If the carry-on won't fit through the template, take some items out and put them in the plastic bag, then put them back after leaving the security point.

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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