Just plane stupid: Airlines luggage rules defy laws of physics

Why do airline allow passengers to bring on board more stuff than will fit in the overhead bins?

July 18, 2011|By Les Cohen

Why do the airlines allow all the passengers on a given flight to carry on luggage, winter coats (if it's that time of the year) and all manner of other stuff, regardless of the overhead space available to hold those items?

I've been traveling a lot lately. If you fly at all, you know that many passengers with smaller suitcases, usually "rollaboards" (suitcases with wheels to make them easier to carry), take their suitcases on board to be stored in overhead compartments. They do this to avoid having to wait at baggage claim — for their luggage to return from Tahiti, where it was mistakenly sent — and to save the checked baggage frees many airlines charge. (USAirways charges $25 per bag, so which is not chump change.)

To be fair, despite that Tahiti crack, baggage rarely gets lost anymore. Carrying a bag on the plane is really all about saving time after you land — and the fee.

Recently, on my way back from a business trip, I was headed down the aisle to find my seat (I'd checked my bag and had only my briefcase with me) when I had one of those Newton moments — you know, the kind when an apple falls off a tree and you suddenly understand the Law of Gravity. A short, somewhat stocky older woman in front of me, barely taller than the rollaboard she was dragging with her, had made it past the first class section to the small, open space by the exit doors. She looked up — way up, in her case — to see the row numbers, and then proceeded to enter the coach section toward her seat.

Airplane aisles are really narrow. As she proceeded to walk between the first set of three seats left and right, her unwieldy rollaboard fell behind. Turning slightly, she yanked it forward but continued walking, the result being that she and her suitcase arrived at the narrow opening at the same time, wedging her between the seat on one side and her own luggage on the other. Naturally, I — suppressing the temptation to whip out my phone and take a picture of the woman's predicament — and others, including a flight attendant, moved immediately to assist her, and the problem was, thankfully, short lived. It was, to my knowledge, the first ever instance of the "aisle wedgy."

It was then and there that I realized my "Second Law of Boarding": "The smaller or older the person, the larger the suitcase he or she will be carrying, squared." (In case you're interested, my "First Law of Boarding" is that "The larger and/or smellier — due to cologne, hairspray or bad fast food — the passenger, the more likely it is that that passenger is going to sit in the open seat next to me.")

Back to boarding. Again, the airlines let everyone bring their bags on board — one suitcase that will fit overhead, and one "personal item" such as a briefcase or backpack — regardless of available space. People do their best to stuff as much as they can overhead because there's really no room under the seat in front of them for both a carry-on and their feet.

It's now the end of the flight. We've landed, the "Fasten Your Seatbelt" light has gone off, and everyone who can has stood up and is in the aisle trying to get his or her bag out of the overhead compartments.

Uh, oh. Something has happened during the flight. Many of the overhead items have swollen. It's happened for reasons understood only by astrophysicists and certain shamans, that must have something to do with cabin pressure and the chemical interaction between ballistic nylon and leather. Something like that. I'm not sure.

In any case, while it was difficult enough stuffing everything into the overhead compartments before we took off, they are so wedged together, it's now nearly impossible to get anything down. This is the phenomenon known as the "overhead compartment wedgy."

The really good news is that the "OCW," as it's soon to be known in scientific circles, gives rise to human behavior at its finest. Strangers, of all ages and types, regardless of income or beliefs, rise, literally, to the occasion: communicating, helping people get their bags, passing them down, often from several rows away. It's a good thing, if only momentary. Not the wedgies per se, but our reactions to them. It reminds me that there may be hope for our species after all.

Les Cohen lives in Ellicott City. He blogs at http://www.WordFeeder.US and http://www.MyKidsGaveMe.org.

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