The New “Hunger Games” of Air Travel: The Carry-On Baggage Dilemma

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When more passengers are vying for limited space for carry-on luggage, it leads to costly delays, airline industry analysts say.

As airlines grapple with the challenges of overstuffed overhead bins, experts and passengers call for a revamp of baggage policies

The struggle for overhead bin space in airplanes has escalated to a level reminiscent of “the Hunger Games,” with passengers and airlines facing growing challenges related to carry-on luggage, according to CBC News.

Flight attendant Cat Jones vividly remembers an incident where a passenger tried to bring a wedding cake onto a flight in Winnipeg, a clear violation of the size limits for carry-on items. In an interview with CBC’s Cost of Living, Jones recounted the lengths to which she and her colleagues went to accommodate the cake. The crew spent over ten minutes rearranging the cabin’s baggage to ensure the cake could travel safely without blocking emergency exits.

This scenario underscores a broader issue in the airline industry. As Jones and other insiders note, the increasing tendency of passengers to carry excessive baggage is leading to costly delays and logistical nightmares. In response, some airlines are reconsidering their baggage policies. Discount carriers like Sunwing and Spirit Airlines are pioneering a shift in fees, charging passengers for the convenience of carrying bags onboard while offering free checked luggage.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst with Atmosphere Research Group, supports this change. Speaking to CBC, Harteveldt argued that such a policy would reduce the stress of finding overhead bin space and potentially increase airline revenue. He emphasized the financial loss airlines incur when planes remain grounded due to delayed boarding processes, largely attributed to the “Tetris-like” game of fitting carry-on items into overhead compartments.

Overstuffed cabin baggage is leading some to call for changes in how baggage fees are structured, with passengers paying for the convenience of taking their luggage on board.

The issue extends beyond mere inconvenience. Caroline Marete, a visiting assistant professor at Purdue University, explained to CBC that these delays have a domino effect, increasing operational costs for airlines. These costs might ultimately lead to higher ticket prices for consumers.

Marete, who holds a PhD in aviation technology, highlighted the additional fuel consumption, ground-handling fees, and extended crew hours as contributing factors to these rising costs. She also noted that strict regulations on crew work hours complicate the issue further.

The trend of passengers pushing the limits of carry-on luggage is not new, according to Harteveldt. He reminisced about a time in the 1970s and 80s when boarding was a swift process, unlike today’s competitive scramble for bin space. He described the current environment aboard planes as akin to “a Hunger Games environment.”

Interestingly, Southwest Airlines, the only major U.S. carrier not charging for checked baggage, reportedly benefits from this policy with minimal ground time between flights. In contrast, other carriers like Spirit Airways and Sunwing have different approaches, with Spirit charging more for carry-on than checked bags and Sunwing offering a free checked bag with vacation packages.

A mess of luggage and passengers is seen at a baggage carousel inside Vancouver International Airport amid mass cancellations and suspended flights on Dec. 19, 2022. Many passengers are opting to carry-on their bags to avoid luggage problems caused by these kinds of disruptions. (Supplied by Craig Minielly)

The report also touches on the issue of trust. Many passengers prefer carrying their bags due to concerns over lost luggage. Harteveldt suggests that airlines could adopt policies similar to Alaska and Delta, guaranteeing timely delivery of checked baggage, as a way to alleviate these concerns.

Passenger perspectives vary. Lynn Kennedy, from Oxford Mills, Ontario, expressed to CBC her willingness to check bags if their safe arrival was guaranteed. On the other hand, Faye Fergusson from Victoria criticized the leniency shown towards oversized carry-ons. Meanwhile, business adviser Jenifer Bartman, based near Winnipeg, advocates for stricter enforcement of existing rules rather than additional fees.