Carry on up the runway

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 August, 2006, 12:00am

As typical cabin baggage swells to elephantine proportions, space in overhead lockers is increasingly at a premium. But, while a modicum of common sense from passengers would go a long way, airlines must shoulder some of the blame.

It starts when you catch the enemy's eye. A sneer, a hunching of the shoulders and you tighten your grip on your 'weapon'. You step one way, feint the other and dive for the gap, elbows out, head down in the style of Zinedine Zidane, feet flying as you claim the prize: a square metre of fresh - well, recycled - air that's yours for the duration.

This is no Wan Chai stand-off; no police-versus-South-Korean-farmers fixture on the road to the Convention Centre. It's the sort of confrontation that takes place every day in economy-class airline cabins.

Even when passengers aren't literally facing off they are still, in a way, fighting for control of the overhead lockers by grunting, heaving, pushing and shoving heavy, over-packed bags into restricted spaces, making sure their precious non-cargo cargo is securely stored, even if it is at the expense of everyone else's (or, in the case of the Cathay Pacific Airways passenger on a recent Hong Kong-Tokyo flight who refused to place her Gucci bag underneath the seat in front of her, delays take-off for an hour).

This pre-flight scrum is a regular occurrence because the amount of carry-on luggage taken aboard aircraft has increased in proportion to the prevalence of air travel. Statistics are few, but more people flying every year plus more money to spend every year equals more stuff bought to take home from Phuket and less space on the plane in which to stick it.

Newton's fifth law of diminishing ticket returns says that the less space available, the bigger the bag one tries to cram into it. This, airlines realised long ago, leads to delays all the way from the carry-on baggage scanner to the overhead lockers to the runway. The bigger the bag, the longer the scan, the more detailed the manual search at the end of the conveyor belt, the longer it takes to reach the gate and the more time-consuming the frantic search for stowage aboard the aircraft. In a cutthroat market this is particularly bad for business; planes don't make money unless they are in the air and fast turnarounds are in the airlines' best interests.

So, is there a carry-on crisis aboard aircraft? In 1998, the Association of Flight Attendants petitioned the United States' Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to enforce a maximum size for carry-on bags because flight attendants were having to mediate in passenger disputes regarding stowage. The FAA refused and passengers, largely ignoring the sort of test-your-bag-here glass receptacle found in airports as well as MTR stations, continued to feed steroids to their carry-on luggage as a means of beefing up their allowance. Carry-on bags with wheels - although by definition they are no longer carry-ons - make it easier for passengers to lug extra loads to the gate and once on board, a crew member can be relied on to take the strain and lift such a bag overhead. It's certainly not going to fit under a seat.

US aviation authorities operate the 'one-plus-one' rule, limiting travellers to one bag plus a 'personal item' such as a handbag, laptop computer or briefcase. But the rule is applied randomly and questions of permissibility are left to each carrier. And even that rule has exceptions: as well as one carry-on and one personal item, passengers may take aboard a small bag or container of food, a coat, reading material and 'devices' such as wheelchairs.

To try to bring some order to the growing chaos, British Airways recently introduced worldwide changes 'to its baggage policies to make them easier for air travellers, reduce queues at airports and bring them into line with British Department of Transport recommendations and the requirements of Britain's main airport operator, the British Airports Authority [BAA]'.

Changes to hand, checked and excess baggage allowances are being phased in, although the airline says its new quotas are comparable to, or more generous than, those of its chief rivals. Reflecting the American position, all passengers will be able to take aboard one 'standard-sized' bag and one briefcase, laptop-computer bag or 'equivalent'. That 'standard-sized' bag must be no bigger than the BAA-stipulated 56cm x 45cm x 25cm. Carry-on weight restrictions no longer apply but passengers must be able to lift their bags unaided into the overhead lockers. There has been no word yet on whether travellers who fail the test will have their bags jettisoned onto the airport apron. Briefcases, laptop-computer bags and similarly sized items must fit under the seats in front of passengers.

Cathay Pacific has similar rules. It too limits passengers to one carry-on bag plus one personal item, with the carry-on luggage dimensions set at 56cm x 36cm x 23cm and the maximum weight at 6.8kg. But rules vary widely and change is likely to trickle rather than flood in. Meanwhile, say flight-crew unions, the extra weight will continue to cause injuries as attendants strain themselves, and thousands of passengers a year are hit by objects tumbling from lockers. Numbers are scarce, but the fact is that carry-on baggage is the biggest cause of passenger injuries in aviation.

If airlines could agree (on anything), the most sensible solution might be a size limit - an idea immediately complicated by the fact that different aircraft have different-sized lockers. Deeper bins, such as those installed by American Airlines on its MD-80 planes, mean more room for more junk. Republican Alaskan senator Ted Stevens recently suggested that every passenger be limited to one carry-on item of a fixed size and was almost instantaneously shouted down by the business community. Security checks, he believes, would be more thorough if there were fewer bags to inspect.

Dragging ever-bigger bags aboard, however, may backfire on passengers until enough realise the need to think small. The practice of weighing carry-on bags at check-in is catching on and if yours are too big or heavy you will have to check them - at extra cost.

Therein may lie the answer to the problem. If not, perhaps passengers could be made to attend classes on how to pack. Maybe airlines could be persuaded to allow two check-in bags per passenger. Or perhaps they could start losing fewer suitcases; after all, the impulse to stash your belongings where you can see them arises primarily out of the fear that your bags might be sent on holiday to Cuba while you languish without a change of clothes in Cambodia.