CHICAGO — — Every airline passenger is entitled to overhead space, right?
Wrong. On a typical domestic flight, six passengers share luggage bins that fit four wheelie bags, at most, leaving some fliers out of luck at a time when more of them are opting to lug their bags, rather than check them, to avoid airline fees.
There are also more passengers competing for that space because planes are again filled to near-record levels, the result of carriers' capacity cuts and a rebound from last year's recession.
Boarding lines, rarely speedy, now often move in reverse when the last luggage bins fill and passengers are forced to back off a plane and return to the jet bridge to check bags.
The next obsession, at least for passengers of Spirit Airlines, may be cramming items under airplane seats. The Florida discount carrier recently said that it would charge customers as much as $45 each way to place bulky items in overhead bins, in an effort to get people on and off its planes faster. Other airlines will watch Spirit's experiment.
Airline staff and passengers are still trying to figure out how best to cope with the changes in boarding and behavior resulting from the new fees on checked baggage, which were widely adopted as the travel market fell into a tailspin in 2008.
Since the start of last year, the number of bags checked at the boarding gate by United Airlines has risen nearly 50 percent, while the volume of bags checked at ticket counters has dropped 18 percent. At American Airlines, more passengers now carry on bags rather than check them.
"Flying definitely has changed over the last 18 months," said Tom Parsons, CEO of BestFares.com, a low-cost travel Web site. "It's a roller-bag derby."
One year ago, when many flights were only two-thirds full, only four people sat in the six seats that share a bin.
Now, "in effect, you have 50 percent more contention for overhead space. What's fine for four people isn't for six," said aviation consultant Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co.
"When you compare the storage space available on board today to 20 years ago, the per-passenger number has to be double, even triple, what it used to be. And, yet, it's never enough."
Both the fees and space constraints can contribute to a breakdown in social conventions as passengers increasingly feel like they're left to fend for themselves.
"It's survival of the fittest," said Shelly Casale, a software consultant from Des Plaines, Ill., as she boarded a United Airlines flight at O'Hare International Airport earlier this month that was bound for Boston.
Cabin baggage has been a growing inconvenience for airlines and passengers alike since the first wheeled luggage rolled onto the market in the early 1990s.
"The truth is we've never had a good handle on this," said Darryl Jenkins, founder of The Airline Zone, a Web site devoted to airline economics.
Carry-on bags didn't become the primary source of luggage for passengers until carriers introduced fees for infrequent fliers and then raised them to $25 to check a first bag and $35 for a second item. United, among the first to adopt the fees, has seen the volume of checked bags fall for 25 consecutive months, said Cindy Szadokierski, United's vice president of airport operations planning and United Express.
Every major U.S. airline except for Southwest Airlines has introduced such fees since 2008, and no wonder. The 10 largest U.S. carriers collected $739.8 million in baggage charges during the third quarter of 2009, double the previous year's totals, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
As planes fill and tensions rise, carriers are exploring ways to ease congestion in their aisles. American offers a valet service so travelers on its Eagle regional jets can easily hand off bags that don't fit overhead. The Texas-based carrier also plans to begin scanning this luggage this year to reduce the risk it is lost.
Airplane manufacturer Boeing Co. is finding a growing market for the new luggage compartments that it created for its 787 Dreamliner and revamped for its 747 and 737 jets. The hinged bins handle far larger bags than current compartments, giving every traveler access to overhead space.
Boeing anticipated the carry-on squeeze, designing the new bins before baggage fees were commonplace. Dozens of airlines have purchased the new 737 interiors, said Kent Craver, Boeing's regional director for passenger satisfaction and revenue.
"We want to remove things that cause anxiety," he said. "People like to fly; they just don't like to fly today."
United is also assigning teams of workers to flights most prone to baggage meltdowns during peak holiday travel periods like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, a program it tested at O'Hare and is rolling out at other large airports.