Will Airlines Charge Us a Fee for Carry-On Baggage?

Carry-on fees could ensure passengers use the same amount of space on planes.

Aug. 26, 2009 — -- You know you want to, airlines. You're dying to do it. So which one of you will go first?

I'm talking about charging passengers a fee for toting a carry-on bag.

I know, it sounds crazy -- and I have no specific insider info -- but it's all the buzz with air travelers and you have to admit it's a logical progression: First the airlines charged a fee for a second checked bag, then for a first and, well, what's left?

At the very least, there will be some sort of overhaul of the "carry-on bag system" because, changes are overdue -- and, why wouldn't the airlines like to make some money off of it?

So, it could happen and, surprise -- some of you might actually like it, if or when it does. At the very least, you'll probably get used to it.

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Let's face it, cokes and carry-ons are pretty much all we have left in terms of airline freebies (and for a while there, US Airways was even denying us our sodas).

And we didn't always have bin space, either. You have to remember that carry-ons are mostly a late 20th century phenomenon -- spawned by cheap air travel, a growing distaste for lost bags, and our penchant for toting our livelihoods around with us -- think laptops and such.

Before that, according to Boeing, "overhead stowage bins were never designed to replace the checking of baggage"; in fact, the storage units on early 727s and 737s were referred to as "hat racks" because that's pretty much what they were, bins for hats and coats.

Carry-On Luggage Fees May Be Next

But times changed, and even as McDonald's mantra became "super size," Boeing started rolling out the euphoniously named "BigBins" as an option on 737s and 757s.

Meanwhile, the regional jet craze of recent years -- with their doll-sized bins -- may seem a regression, but for the carry-on crowd it's been a free pass of sorts: if your onboard bag is too big, no problem! The flight attendant will check it for you -- for free.

Yes, but for how much longer?

Something has to change: Flights this past July were 90 percent full, which in terms of carry-ons means chaos in the cabins.

It's certainly a grim experience for travelers like Melissa McDowell of Los Angeles who says, "I can't stand the idiots who keep me waiting while they smash giant bags into tiny bins -- and there sure isn't any room left for me."

A carry-on fee just might change that -- but first, understand that most fliers in the United States are spoiled. Many of our airlines provide a generous allowance of "take-on-board" items: United, for example allows one carry-on bag, one personal item, plus a coat and even an "assistive device" if you need one, such as a cane or crutches. That's a lot -- but some even abuse that quota.

A parent I know (who asked to remain anonymous) recently saw her daughter off to college with two checked-bags, plus one large carry-on, a huge purse, a hefty laptop, a bulky coat, a stack of books and a veritable avalanche of items.

"I thought, they're going to catch her," said the worried mother. "They're going to make her check some of that stuff and pay."

But to her surprise, they didn't.

I bet they would have on European discounter Ryanair: The renowned cheapskate airline allows passengers a just a single, small carry-on bag (22 pounds or less) or one purse or one laptop or one coat or one shopping bag -- well, you get the idea.

Ryanair is strict -- and maybe the U.S. airlines should be too -- at least when it comes to the size of a carry-on. Sure, many airlines do have limits, but they don't evenly enforce them and it doesn't help that each aircraft has different bin sizes. Fees might help, as I note in my list of pros and cons.

Carry-On Luggage Fees May Be Next


I think carry-on fees will fly if we all derive the same benefit from them, meaning we all get to take up the same amount of space -- and enter, the baggage police.

To make this really fair, I can see a carry-on fee leading to a "universal bag size" -- one that easily fits into the bins of big jets, and possibly even smaller regional jets. Besides, if bags actually fit, it could mean less waiting in the aisles, which could improve on-time departure statistics -- and maybe allow passengers the convenience of boarding later. Bonus: you'd be more likely to find a bin that's actually in the vicinity of your seat.


This one's easy: No one wants to pay for something that used to be free. On the other hand, TV used to be free, too, but we sure got used to paying those cable and satellite bills, didn't we?

Another "con" to consider: airlines don't like bad PR. Which carrier wants to be the first to endure the brunt of terrible press, not to mention the constant snark from the late-night talkshow hosts.

Finally, who's going to be the carry-on cop? Who will measure and weigh -- be judge and jury? I'm not sure, but if airlines are strict in the beginning, I suspect we'll all fall in line.

We may not have a choice.

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 FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.