Airline passengers go to war over bin space

If mentioning the word “overhead bin” doesn’t raise your blood pressure, maybe you haven’t flown recently.

But John Masters has. On a recent AirTran Airways flight, the Wichita, Kan., legal assistant noticed that the airline made every effort to persuade passengers to check their bags. Many refused.

One air traveler seated near him then laid claim to an overhead compartment that’s meant to store carry-ons for four passengers.

“He proceeded to shove his oversize, rolling steamer trunk into the overhead, followed by the camera bag that was strapped to it, then took off his backpack and topcoat and added them to the overhead,” Masters says. “His baggage alone took up nearly the entire overhead compartment.”

Flight attendants say the overhead bin space is the number-one reason passengers fight with each other and with crewmembers. The conflict has only escalated since many major airlines, including AirTran, began charging for the first checked bag. While this made the airline industry profitable again, it only ratcheted up tensions on the plane.

“Many more people are bringing a carry-on that’s generally larger than before,” says Jon Kapecki, a frequent flier and technology consultant in Rochester, NY. “The result is that there is often insufficient room in the overhead bins.”

What’s the fix?

We could turn back the clock on the airline baggage fees. Already, one travel industry group is urging airlines to quote a fare that includes one checked bag (PDF) and the Senate is considering a bill that would require airlines to let air travelers check a bag “for free.” But critics fear that could plunge the industry into bankruptcy.

We could go the other way. That’s right, we could start charging airline passengers for their carry-ons. Ridiculous? Sure, but Spirit Airlines did it in 2010 and is earning $50 million a year from the fee. About 20 percent of its customers pay to bring their bag into the main cabin, according to a recent study (PDF). The rest travel light – and doesn’t that solve the problem in a kind of twisted way?

We could let the market solve the problem. That’s the solution Masters will get the next time he flies on AirTran. The airline has been acquired by Southwest Airlines, which famously has a “bags fly free” policy. (In other words, it includes the price of checking luggage into its fares.) Passengers basically said they preferred that approach to the bags-don’t-fly-free policy of the major airlines and they voted with their wallets.

Ah, a market solution. That should make every right-leaning reader cheer.

Kapecki isn’t so sure. He’s critical of Southwest’s approach, particularly its “early bird” fee that lets you board the aircraft before everyone else, staking a claim to the bin space above your seat. Airlines, he says, aren’t missing a chance to “monetize any form of customer discomfort.”

“In effect,” he adds, “they’re making passengers pay for a problem the airlines created.”

Will any of these steps put an end to the overhead bin wars? Probably not.

But it’s worth a try.

(Photo: Carib b/Flickr)

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