Watch Out for the Carry-On Cops

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Why all the bragging? Because as anyone who flies knows, the overhead bins are overly stuffed. Even if your bag is tiny, good luck finding a spot for it if you're among the last to board. I think the last time there was any extra space in an overhead bin was back in the summer of 2006, when for a about a month and a half the TSA banned all liquids after an alleged explosives plot. That sent even business travelers back to checked bags; the overhead bins were half empty, and the volume of checked luggage rose by 20 percent.

Anyway, back to the good old days -- circa last year -- life for the in-and-out traveler was good. Then came the 2008 oil crisis. Face it, with oil getting close to $150 a barrel, the airline luggage police -- sorry, the airlines loathe that term but that's what these airline employees are -- are out in force, measuring and sometimes even weighing carry-ons. If carry-on bags exceed airline limitations, they will be checked (and if the airline is American, United or US Airways, you will pay).

So for the carry-on brigade, more headaches are on the way. Now you must learn the "linear inches" of your bag (you add the length plus width plus height of your bag), not to mention the actual dimensions (to see if the bag will fit in that irksome metal template), and then there's the weight limitation.

So can you buy one "correct" bag and be done with it?

Not if you want to carry the biggest bag allowed: You see, different airlines have different standards when it comes to carry-ons.

By the way, these size and weight requirements are nothing new; they've been in place for years. But human nature being what it is, nobody much followed the rules if they didn't have too. Now everyone has to.

But if you think all those different rules, all those different bag standards drive you crazy, think about the flight attendants -- their union has been calling for uniform bag standards for the past 10 years. They are tired of arbitrating disputes over size, and sometimes having to hoist heavy-weight bags themselves. Even if a uniform standard is ever put into place, a universal carry-on bag would probably not fit into some of the storage compartments on smaller regional jets, which we're seeing more and more of as airlines reduce capacity.

However, American Airlines says its new enforcement policy is being taken in stride by its passengers, and it is certainly being applauded by travelers who must check their luggage -- you know, the folks who get a little steamed when they see someone flouting the carry-on requirements by dragging a huge bag onboard and then causing delays as they try to stuff it into a bin the size of a bread box.

In fact, there is a school of thought that says, why not charge a fee for the convenience of a carry-on, and let people check their bags for free. I'm not sure I agree, but I can see the logic in that.

I can also see this possibility: If more airlines join in on a first checked-bag fee, perhaps the volume of carry-ons will increase by 20 percent (I'm thinking back to that "no liquids" period, when the number of checked bags rose 20 percent). If that happens, then, no matter how much bin space the airlines boast about, is there going to be enough room? Do the math.

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