Finding room for carry-on baggage has become ‘the Hunger Games’ of air travel, analyst says

Cost of Living5:00Cakes on a plane

Flight attendant Cat Jones will never forget the day she spotted a woman carrying a wedding cake down the bridge to board her plane in Winnipeg.

When the passenger reached the door, Jones gently mentioned that the box was above the size limits for carry-on baggage.

“It was her niece’s wedding and it was some sort of family friend who owned the bakery. And it was a really kind of meaningful, sentimental part of this wedding that was about to happen,” said Jones, who worked for WestJet at the time.

She and her colleagues spent at least 10 minutes moving people and their carry-on baggage around the plane so that they could make room for the cake box on the floor of a window seat where it wouldn’t block anyone’s exit in the event of an emergency, Jones told Cost of Living. And that was just for one passenger’s extra gear. 

Jones and other airline industry insiders say passengers have become carried away with carry-on baggage, leading to costly delays.  

That’s prompting calls for changes to how airplanes charge for baggage, with some discount airlines like Sunwing and Spirit already beginning to flip the fee structure so passengers pay for the privilege of keeping their bags on board.

Cat Jones, who was a WestJet flight attendant for 10 years, said she’s had to make room in the cabin for all manner of objects from Disneyland lightsabers to houseplants and even a wedding cake. (Submitted by Cat Jones)

Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst with Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco, says this change needs to happen, and that passengers should be allowed to check a bag for free.

“People would appreciate this. They would feel less nickel-and-dimed. And people who want the convenience and control would pay to bring their bags on the plane,” said Harteveldt, who noted airlines would likely generate the same or more in baggage revenue. 

Plus, there would be other savings, he said.

“When the airplane is sitting on the ground, it’s not making money for the airline.”

Delays are happening in part because, as Jones describes it, the crew is stuck playing “Tetris” with people’s backpacks, pillows, duty-free purchases and souvenirs.

Return flights from Disney trips were especially challenging, said Jones, who lives in Calgary and now works in private aviation.

“Where am I going to put these lightsabers? And massive stuffed animals. Mickey Mouse is, you know, coming in on top of the allotted, one carry-on, one personal item. It needs its own overhead bin.”

Because airlines share gates and runways, there’s a “domino effect” when overstuffed cabins lead to late departures, she said.

A woman wearing a light-coloured blazer poises for a photo.
Caroline K. Marete is a visiting assistant professor in the school of aviation and transportation technology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. (Submitted by Caroline Marete)

Tardy takeoffs increase costs across the board, said Caroline Marete, a visiting assistant professor in the school of aviation and transportation technology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

“If there are more passengers trying to get their cabin carry-ons through the aisles, this delays the entire process of boarding and also disembarking the passengers that are arriving,” said Marete, who has a PhD in aviation technology.

It means the planes burn more fuel, the airlines pay more for ground-handling services and the crews stay on duty longer, she said. The staffing aspect is particularly complicated given that there are strict maximums on how many hours airline crew can work.

And those costs may translate into higher ticket prices.

Harteveld said boarding wasn’t always such a time-consuming process.

“If you go back into the 1970s and ’80s, airlines would board flights maybe 20 minutes before departure. But we didn’t have this jostling for space in the overhead bins,” he said.

“It’s like a Hunger Games environment on the plane. And may the odds ever be in your favour of finding a spot for your bag near your seat.”

A woman's hands and knees are shown on top of a small, overstuffed yellow suitcase.
Overstuffed cabin baggage is leading some to call for changes in how baggage fees are structured, with passengers paying for the convenience of taking their luggage on board. (Sebra/Shutterstock)

He said Southwest is the only U.S. airline that does not charge for checked baggage, and notes the company credits this with keeping its time on the ground between flights to an absolute minimum.

Another U.S. discount carrier, Spirit Airways, charges around $5 US more to carry on rather than check a bag.

In Canada, Sunwing allows passengers who book vacation packages to check one bag for free, up to 50 pounds (around 23 kilograms). While it allows travellers to bring one personal item — such as a purse or laptop bag — into the cabin, it costs $25 to take a small suitcase, duffel or backpack as carry-on.

For major carriers like Air Canada, only certain fare classes, loyalty programs, destinations or airline partnerships come with a checked bag included.

An issue of trust

Harteveld said it would also be helpful if airlines could provide more assurance that people’s baggage would arrive with them at their destination.

“If more airlines did as Alaska and Delta do in the U.S. and say: ‘Look, if you check your bag, we guarantee that it will be delivered to you in 20 minutes or less — and if it’s not, we’ll either give you frequent flier miles or a travel credit,’ then I think we’d see a lot more people feeling comfortable checking their bags.”

A lot of airlines have invested in tracking apps that allow passengers to monitor the status and location of their bags, said Harteveld, but without a guarantee, “a lot of people are going to say, ‘I don’t want to waste my time at the destination.'”

Lynn Kennedy of Oxford Mills, Ont., south of Ottawa, told Cost of Living she wouldn’t mind checking her bag if she knew for sure she’d get it back.

“If I would have a guarantee that I’d actually get my stuff at the end of my flight, I would check it for sure and save all the hassle of shoving things up in the bins and fighting with people for space and everything else.”

But when she flew frequently for work, Kennedy said she’d often see people travelling with multiple carry-on bags equivalent in volume to a large suitcase. “And nobody challenged them.” 

A mess of colourful luggage and frustrated passengers is pictured at a crowded baggage terminal inside Vancouver International Airport.
A mess of luggage and passengers is seen at a baggage carousel inside Vancouver International Airport amid mass cancellations and suspended flights on Dec. 19, 2022. Many passengers are opting to carry-on their bags to avoid luggage problems caused by these kinds of disruptions. (Supplied by Craig Minielly)

In Victoria, Faye Fergusson said she wishes airlines had never allowed anything as big as a roller suitcase in the cabin because too many people abuse the privilege. She said she’s noticed that those who fly frequently for work usually have modest carry-on luggage.

“But then you have these others who will come on and they will have a suitcase and a backpack and maybe a couple of shopping bags. And they’re taking up one, two, three people’s space in the overhead bins.”

Fergusson said she applauds the idea of paying for carry-on, and thinks business travellers would opt for the quick airport exit they need while vacationers should cool their jets at the baggage carousel.

But business adviser Jenifer Bartman, who lives near Winnipeg, doesn’t think charging for carry-on luggage is the answer. 

“What I would rather see from a consumer standpoint is better enforcement of what the rules actually are,” she said. 

“I’ve seen this happen multiple times where there’s a garment bag, you know, a backpack or a big heavy duffel bag or a roller suitcase and a computer bag and they walk on without even having the staff blink at them.”

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