Watch Out for the Carry-On Cops

And you think you've got the carry-on baggage blues.

When Charles Lindbergh set out from San Diego on the first part of his journey to solo across the Atlantic, he took a carry-on bag: a small suitcase, tied to the Spirit of St. Louis' fuselage (possibly the first case of "bag abuse"). But when Lindbergh left New York for Le Bourget, he ditched his bag (too heavy) in favor of a couple of turkey and bologna sandwiches and two bottles of water.

Times have changed. Or have they?

Yes, size still matters. Just as the Lone Eagle carried next to nothing to save fuel on his little plane, today's airlines are trying to do the same by forcing passengers to pack lightly so carry-ons adhere to airline size and weight regulations, unless passengers are willing to pay for the privilege of checking bulky bags.

This is the latest airline gambit to help them try to keep up with the crazy cost of fuel: hefty, fuel-eating baggage will cost you (and help defray fuel expenses). Translation: in addition to charging a fee for a first-checked bag (American, United and US Airways are or will soon be doing this), the airlines are also cracking down on people who try to bring oversized, overstuffed and overweight carry-ons into the cabin.

Of course, 100 years ago, when ocean liner travel reigned, size didn't matter. The wealthy would sometimes pack up the equivalent of a household in a vast array of steamer trunks. But in those days they might be traveling on visits that would last for months -- or even years.

Air travel changed all that, and the luggage changed with it, especially once business travelers caught on to the benefits of speedy trips (speedy but relatively expensive trips, which is why airlines sought to pamper them with their very own cabin class beginning in the late '70s). Road Warriors quickly figured out that if they were among the first to board in business class, they could be among the first to get out of the airport, if they carried their luggage into the cabin.

In 1972, another boon for business folks (and everyone else, really) came when Bernard Sadow got a patent for suitcases with wheels, forever ending the literal meaning of "carry-on," at least in regards to our roller bags (Sadow is what you might call a Renaissance man; according to The New York Times, he also invented the "electric toothpick").

In the next decade, another inventor came up with the retractable handle, and our wheely, pullable carry-alls were suddenly the hot bags (and no doubt contributed to the demise of the garment bag as the business person's bag of choice).

Meanwhile, we've seen overhead bin space get bigger. In the '90s, the "next generation" Boeing 737 boasted larger overhead bins while a reporter breathlessly noted that the small Embraer 170 twin-engine could "hold roller bags as long as 25 inches." The huge Airbus A380 claims "more overhead stowage," while Boeing says its Dreamliner has the "biggest bins in the industry" (now, if only it could deliver the planes).

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.

In the meantime, if you do want to take a carry-on to your next flight but you're not planning to travel as light as Lindy, check out your airline's Web site for its carry-on size and weight limitations (and some sites -- like ours -- have convenient charts for this). You'll save time, avoid frustration, and you won't have to worry about the extra checked-bag fee -- or the baggage police.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.