Let me start by saying I'm not after any airline. I've heard enough stories to know what I'm about to relate happens no matter which carrier you fly. I'm referring to random harassment.
Nothing sexual. We're talking carry-on bag harassment. Pre-boarding persecution.
It's not a life-or-death issue but it is the kind of aggravation airlines should pay more attention to since it often ends with a passenger shouting, "I'll never fly you again!" Plus it slows things down for the rest of us and might even contribute to delayed departures (which airlines really don't like that since the Department of Transportation publishes on-time performance figures).
Here is my story, what I witnessed at Miami International last week:
A man is stopped as he is about to enter the jet bridge to board his flight to an island destination. He is told to surrender his carry-on. The traveler is confused; his wife and teenager just headed down the ramp, each wheeling the exact same bag.
Our flier knew his bag met the airline's dimension guidelines; his well-worn wheelie took up just 40 linear inches of the allowed 45 and he's carried it on hundreds of flights including the one that brought him to Miami. So he asks for a metal sizing-rack to prove his bag is in compliance.
"Don't have one here," he was told by the tag team carry-on police. "Besides, your bag's too heavy."
How would you know, asked the passenger, since you haven't touched it? At this point, one of the baggage eye-ballers - clearly flustered - suggests the traveler is somehow being "threatening" even though he made no threats and didn't even raise his voice.
See what's happening? The bag-checker is the child with chocolate chips all over his face while adamantly insisting he did not take the last cookie. But our traveler gives it one last try: Why aren't you charging me a fee if you have to check my bag? We have no way to collect a fee here, was the response. By now several minutes have passed and the plane is filling up. The traveler surrendered his bag.
A sympathetic flight attendant, informed of this tale of woe, gave the expected out-of-my-hands shrug but at least presented our now bag-less traveler with an un-asked for free drink. Quick aside: Even though this traveler is an 'elite', a zillion-mile member of the airline's loyalty program, he did not play the "Do you know who I am?" card. He doesn't think that's the right thing to do (but he did have some second thoughts after his bag was gone!).
There are so many ways this scenario could have played out differently but let me say, I get that passengers and airlines are tired of cheaters who flout the carry-on rules. I am too. Think of the guy who spends 10 minutes in the aisle trying to jam his steamer trunk in the overhead bin or the woman who juggles two carry-ons plus a Godzilla-sized purse. These folks brazenly take over what little bin space is available and should be stopped. But arbitrarily including those who do follow the rules in the cheater-dragnet is just plain idiotic.
United Airlines has let it be known it's cracking down on oversized carry-ons and hopes to place sizing-racks at every gate. This would not have made a difference in our story since the bag in question was the correct size but it is a good idea.
Another idea: Let the crack-down spread to all airlines and include basic equipment such as measuring tapes along with size-racks at all gates. And how about better trained employees? And I do mean employees; at least one of the bag-checkers in our story said he was not employed by the airline and was apparently a contract worker so it's no surprise he didn't know the rules. Makes you wonder: Was he arbitrarily pulling bags from the line to meet a quota? I don't know but I do know that if you use well-trained employees to ferret out only the cheaters, this is less likely to happen.
By the way, to ensure passengers follow the baggage rules, be sure passengers know the baggage rules. Give airfare shoppers a clearly marked link to both carry-on and checked bag regulations. We don't need all the details in our face while shopping, just an easy way to access the information. And passengers would have a duty to check it out.
Actually, passengers would have to check these rules frequently because they can change at any time without notice. Just last week, American announced its merger partner US Airways was trimming its carry-on dimensions by a few inches (to conform with AA's allowance) which may not seem like a vast difference but it is to the baggage police.
Finally, let's have these sizing dramas play out before a traveler gets to the gate. In fact, put the baggage police in front of security checkpoints. It'll make it easier to collect a fee if one is warranted, and easier for non-cheaters to make their planes.
I wish that's how it played out for me. Yes, I was the traveler who had his bag taken away. And yes, it was not life-or-death. But it gives me a much better idea of why so many people unfortunately say, "I hate to fly."
Opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.