Ban the bins?

By | April 26th, 1999

Is it time to get rid of overhead luggage bins on planes?

Don’t laugh. Geraldine Margolis of West Bloomfield, Mich., isn’t. Not after she took a United Airlines flight from Miami to Washington and a metal frame rolled out of a compartment and onto her head, leaving her with permanent brain damage. Her case was settled out of court, but she says the overheads remain “unfair to the rest of the passengers.”

Ask passengers like Frances Hodges, who was felled by a case of rum on a Delta Air Lines flight from the Caribbean to Miami. Or Norma Hansen, who suffered a traumatic head injury when a laptop computer dropped on top of her. They probably don’t think it’s absurd to talk about eliminating the overhead bins

Flight attendants, who end up with 15 percent of the injuries caused by carry-ons (according to the Association of Flight Attendants), would do away with the controversial compartments in a second. As it is, the association wants the Federal Aviation Administration to impose uniform baggage regulations on the airlines.

The union is asking the government to limit carry-ons to 13 pounds and no more than 45 combined inches of height, width and depth. So far the FAA hasn’t done anything, but U.S. Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, is planning a hearing late this spring on the issue.

No one would welcome binless cabins more than the airlines. The most common lawsuits against carriers involve injuries sustained during a flight. And after a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco late last year made it easier for passengers to take an airline to court for getting hurt by the likes of beverage carts and falling luggage, many believe injured passengers will be filing lawsuits in record numbers.

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“If the airlines could, they’d get rid of the overhead bins entirely,” says Arthur Wolk, an Philadelphia-based aviation attorney who specializes in plane crashes.

Speaking of accidents, Wolk says yet another good reason to remove the bins is that it would make aircraft safer. “In every crash,” he says, “no matter how minor, the bins open up, injuring passengers or disabling them or preventing them from reaching the exits. In the event of an accident, luggage becomes missiles.”

Little wonder then that among the most frequent travelers, carry-ons stored in the overhead bins are called UFOs – short for “unrestrained falling objects.”

The FAA doesn’t track injuries caused by UFOs. However, court data from a case against US Airways revealed that the carrier settled 1,000 injury claims from falling carry-ons in a recent three-year period, according to Russell Robison, executive director of Injury Prevention Works, an Erie, Pa., industry lobbying group.

Robison also says United Airlines recorded 462 injuries caused by falling luggage – in three years in its Boeing 757s alone. It doesn’t take a mathematician to extrapolate that the number of UFO-related injuries in the United States is vast. Robison estimates that 12 people a day are hurt by falling carry-ons.

“Getting rid of the overhead bins is one solution,” he says. “It’s unconscionable to place passengers at risk the way they are.”

Wait a second. Do these folks have any idea what this would mean? Yeah, banning carry-on baggage would streamline the boarding process and protect us from injury. But then, the most we could carry on a plane would be a handbag or laptop computer that fits under the seat. What’s more, we’d be slaves to the airlines’ failed baggage handling system. Is this any way to travel?

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Maybe. Some frequent travelers have already begun skirting baggage problems by shipping their luggage instead of carrying it on the plane or surrendering it to the airline. A company like Federal Express “rarely” loses a package, according to FedEx spokesman Jess Bunn. The Memphis company scans its packages up to a dozen times and guarantees that you can track a shipment’s exact position.

Dismantling the overhead compartments may sound outrageous. But think about it the next time you’re whacked over the head by a falling bag (if you’re still in a state of mind to think). Some things are far more important than the convenience of a carry-on.

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