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Airlines cracking down on carry-ons

With American and United charging passengers $15 for checking a bag, you can bet carry-on bags will get bigger and overhead compartments fuller. What better time for an etiquette refresher course from the Well-Mannered Traveler?
Image: luggage
Passengers organize their luggage in overhead bin space.John Brecher /

If your next airplane seatmate seems unusually roly-poly, it may be because he stuffed his pockets with extra underwear and layered on several outfits in an effort to avoid paying to check his bag.

And why not? A few months back, most major airlines announced fees for checking a second bag. Then American Airlines announced that it would begin charging travelers for checking their first bag: as of Sunday, non-exempt passengers purchasing tickets on American Airlines must pay $15 each way for their first checked bag and $25 each way for their second checked bag. Not to be left behind in the “what else can we charge passengers for” race, United Airlines and US Airways last week announced similar policies. United's new fees apply to tickets purchased beginning June 13th.  The first-bag fees on US Airways kick in July 9th.

Will other airlines follow suit? You bet.

What does this mean for air travelers?  Lighter wallets, heavier carry-on bags and plenty of headaches.

What now?
Some folks will grumble about the new fees, pay them and chalk it up to these maddening, modern times.

But plenty of folks are going to decide that, heck no, they’re not paying those extra baggage fees and will instead attempt to cram all they can into their carry-on bags. And because overhead bin space on planes is already at a premium, you just know there's going to be trouble.

Now, more than ever, it’s a good time to brush up on your manners for packing and stowing your stuff.

Go toward the light: It may seem impossible, but, for many trips, traveling with just a small, easy-to-stow carry-on bag is a realistic option — especially if you embrace a packing system that includes mix-and-match outfits and choose clothing made of no-iron, wash-and-dry fabrics. And remember, out on the road, if you can keep spaghetti sauce and other tell-tale food stains off your clothing, no one needs to know you’ve worn the same outfit more than once.

Be cautious with your carry-on footprint:  As you make your way down the aisle, make sure your bags don’t smack into the shoulders and faces of unsuspecting passengers already seated. And don’t be a bin hog by taking up way too much space or by storing your bags over the seats of row nine if you are seated in row 39.

Crack-down on carry-ons:  Nearly every airline’s carry-on policy states that passengers are allowed to board with one personal item, (such as a purse or a laptop bag) and one bag that can be no larger than 45 linear inches, which is the total of the height, width and depth of the bag. Few travelers know if their carry-on bag actually meets the 45 linear-inches limit. Given the outrageously large bags we’ve all seen some folks trying to stuff into the overhead bins, fewer travelers seem to care.

But they’re going to have to. Travelers hoping to avoid the new checked-bag fees simply by taking oversized bags onboard could find themselves sent back to the check-in counter by airline employees monitoring bag sizes.

American Airlines is the first airline to acknowledge starting a carry-on crackdown. According to spokesperson Tim Wagner, American usually adds extra staff during summers. This season, some of those “high-season” employees have already been tasked with monitoring the size of carry-on bags at checkpoints. “We’d rather catch it there than have to deal with taking away bags at the gate or on the airplane,” Wagner said.

At airports where security checkpoints serve passengers of multiple airlines, heading off oversized bags seems complicated — if not impossible. But as Wagner points out, it will be a much easier task in airports such as Dallas-Fort Worth International, where the airline’s flights fill entire concourses and terminals. “The carry-on limit is no secret and customers need not try to skirt the rules.”

But what about the traveler who ends up having a carry-on bag gate-checked because there’s no room for the bag in any overhead bin? When the new fees are fully in place, Wagner says, passengers will be charged if their carry-on bag exceeds the legal size limit. If, however, the bag is in compliance, no charge will be levied. So don’t be surprised if tape measures and yardsticks soon become standard issue accessories for flight attendants and gate agents.

It’s not just American Airlines that will be clamping down on the size of carry-ons — others will follow. For example, while (as of last week) Alaska Airlines had no plans to impose fees for a first checked bag, on July 1st, the airline is joining most other airlines in imposing a $25 fee for a second checked bag. Alaska spokesperson Marianne Lindsey says the airline will be putting a “few things” in place to better monitor carry-ons. The airline is testing new, “more customer-friendly baggage sizers,” and in some cities will have employees at security checkpoints “keeping an eye out for people with extra large bags” and giving travelers the “opportunity” to go back to the ticket counter and pay for it.”

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for