Bag-check fees lead to stuffed bins overhead

Checked-bag fees recently imposed by airlines to increase revenue are squeezing business travelers out of their most precious real estate: the overhead bins.

Frequent business traveler Jeff Brown was boarding his US Airways flight at Hartford, Conn., when he was told that the overhead bins were full, just after passing the first-class cabin.

About 20% of the passengers were still in line to get on board, says Brown, a machinery manufacturing company executive from Kansas City, Mo. "Around 20 bags had to be gate-checked. It was so packed, there were people sitting in their seats holding small to medium-sized bags because they couldn't go either way in the aisles."

Airline officials, flight attendants and frequent travelers say Brown's case is hardly unique. Passengers are bringing more carry-ons, and finding enough space to put them away properly is becoming increasingly difficult, they say. The situation is more acute on routes that are favored by leisure travelers, such as flights to Florida or Las Vegas.

Even before the new fees were introduced, overhead bin space was already stretched thin. Planes are flying with some of the historically highest "load factors," or the percentage of occupied seats, as demand remains relatively robust, despite the weakening economy. Airlines are also flying smaller planes, with more regional jets mixed into the fleets, to serve small and midsize cities.

"Flight attendants are seeing more bags in the cabin, and we have to work harder to make sure they fit," says Candace Kolander, coordinator of air safety, health and security for the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). "It could also be a safety hazard. In the very unlikely event of a crash, there is the possibility that the bin door could open and bags will fall out."

Airlines aren't required to reveal the number of checked bags. But American Airlines, the nation's largest carrier, says the average number of bags checked per passenger has dropped since it began imposing fees ($15 for the first bag, $25 for the second) earlier this year. Prior to introducing the fees, an average of 1.2 bags were checked per passenger. Now, it's slightly below one, spokesman Tim Smith says. "The biggest percentage drop is in the second bag (checked). It was more noticeable."

United Airlines, which said Monday that it will raise the fee on the second checked bag to $50 from $25, has also seen a decline in the average number of bags checked per person since February, spokeswoman Robin Urbanski says.

Still, checked-bag fees have been a sizable revenue stream since they were introduced in the spring. Continental Airlines said last week that its new bag-check fee will result in about $100 million in revenue.

More roller bags rolling on board

According to data released by the Department of Transportation Monday, the U.S. airlines industry collected $183 million in excess-baggage fees in the second quarter of 2008, up from $122 million in the first quarter and $113 million in the second quarter of 2007. The DOT defines excess baggage as any bag that requires payment for checking.

Typically, airlines allow two carry-ons — one bag no heavier than 40 pounds and no more than 45 inches in length, width and height combined, as well as a personal item small enough to fit under the seat.

But now with the new fees, cabin crews are seeing more roller bags brought on board, and not all are within the size limit, says AFA's Kolander. "(Passengers) who may have checked their roller bags before are now bringing them on board. They're going to fill the bins faster than handbags."

Frequent traveler Judith Briles, a consultant based in Aurora, Colo., says she's noticed more travelers putting their luggage in the first overhead space available, instead of trying to place them near their assigned seats.

"There have been several non-pleasant verbal exchanges when they are told to remove them by passengers who are clued in and in their seats," she says. "I've seen two large rollies come on per person."

Traveler Tim Riemenschneider, a sales executive based in Hudson, Wis., thinks clearing security checkpoints has also been slowed because of more carry-ons. He tries to board as quickly as possible to find enough overhead bin space, but he finds others are onto a similar strategy.

"I'm sure the bag fee is generating additional dollars for the airlines. However, I wonder if anyone will review the costs associated with the delays," he says.

Airlines say flight attendants and gate agents are trained to flag carry-ons that are larger than the limit and gate-check them on the jet bridge or tag them for moving down to cargo.

But AFA's Kolander says employees' ability to police passengers' luggage has been hampered by dramatic staffing reductions in the last several years. In June, the airline industry employed 415,000 full-time equivalent employees, or 6% fewer than four years earlier.

Most airlines no longer staff additional flight attendants beyond the federal requirement of one for every 50 passengers, and it's not unusual to have one agent working at each gate during boarding.

At least one airline is looking for ways to enforce the carry-on-size limit.

American has eliminated the standard silver metal crate used to measure them because they are ineffective, Smith says, and is considering several new designs for a luggage-sizer that could handle different shapes.

American and United are also staffing employees at the security checkpoints of some airports to alert customers who are attempting to pass through with bags that are larger than the allowed limit.

"At every point of contact, (employees) are looking to see if people are out of line," Smith says.

FLIERS: Are you noticing more passengers making the move to carry-on luggage only? How is it affecting your travel experience?