Why do airlines in the US let people bring luggage on board?
October 14, 2019 1:55 PM   Subscribe

It happens on every flight I take: the overhead bins fill up with roller bags, so the flight attendants ask if anyone will check their bag at the door. The passengers who take that offer that don't have to pay the $25-ish checked baggage fee that people who checked their bags earlier did. There is no downside for a passenger doing this, as far as I can tell -- either you get to take your extra bag as a carry-on, or you get your bag checked for free. But what's the airlines' motivation for letting this happen?

I would think that if they stopped letting larger bags past the initial check-in and enforced the stated limits people would move faster through security, passengers would board and disembark faster, and the airlines would make more money through checked baggage.

What the airlines get out of this?
posted by The corpse in the library to Travel & Transportation (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If an airline forced everyone to check their bigger bags at check-in then they would lose a huge number of customers because lots of people don't want to check bags. They don't want to be without their stuff on the flight, they don't want to wait at baggage claim, and they don't want to risk their stuff getting lost.
posted by caek at 2:03 PM on October 14, 2019 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: Do passengers have much say in which airline they use? I rarely have more than one airline flying where and when I want to go.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:06 PM on October 14, 2019

I disagree with two of your assumptions:

1) You seem to be under the impression that the issue is "letting larger bags past the initial check-in" vs. enforcing the limits. But I've been on planes where the plane itself didn't accommodate the approved carry-on bags of everyone on the plane.

2) "There is no downside for a passenger doing this." Oh yes there is! My bag can get lost. I can get delayed at my destination waiting 45 minutes for it to show up at baggage claim. It can get beat up/dirty/wet in transit. These are serious downsides for me.

On preview: yes, there are a lot of airline options everywhere I want/need to fly. Even things like method for boarding the plane is enough to get me to avoid one. (I'm looking at you, Southwest!)
posted by cranberry_nut at 2:08 PM on October 14, 2019 [23 favorites]

Do passengers have much say in which airline they use? Yes, for the majority of routes.

"There is no downside for a passenger doing this."
I fly for business A LOT. I find it enormously more hassle when I have to check a bag because it means I need to get to the airport sooner, then am stuck waiting at the other end longer AND I have the random factor of bags getting lost which, while not common, is a SERIOUS issue for me when I am on a work trip as I have branded, required clothing I need to wear at some events and I can't just throw on a shirt from target and make do.

It is wildly preferable to go carry on only. Business travellers know this and, for the most part, adhere to the regulations precisely - one bag up top, with second day bag/handbag/backpack/briefcase as applicable by their feet. These people are not your problem. It's the non-regular travellers (in my experience) that cause the hold ups and drama and too many bags and take too much space up in the overhead bins by not wanting stuff by their feet etc etc etc.

The single biggest things that would speed up existing air travel as it sits right now are two things:

1: Consideration for other passengers
2: Common sense

There is precious little of either in air travel.
posted by Brockles at 2:14 PM on October 14, 2019 [55 favorites]

People who are eligible for this already (should...) fall into the limit of "one carry-on sized luggage and one personal item rule". Its these carry-on sized luggage pieces where this is allowed, as if there was overhead bin space they could fit up there. If you try to do this with a larger bag (larger than carry-on size) they can make you check it and pay the fee.

I try not to check a bag when I fly - I travel with a carry-on sized piece of luggage any my backpack. Both pieces fit in the overhead bin, and my backpack fits under the seat. But the bins are full I'm ok with them gate-checking my carry-on, as I usually can also pick it up at the gate and not via the baggage claim areas.

Or, on preview, what Brockles said.
posted by cgg at 2:17 PM on October 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What the airlines get out of this?

Another side - there is a lot of storage space overhead in a plane. Newer planes have more room, is the trend. Having passengers carry all their shit on and take it off means less baggage handling needed for all the checked stuff (so time and logistics saving), more luggage can be carried below, more paid freight (if applicable) can also be carried. There isn't really a downside for them. If they lost revenue in checked bags they'd sure as hell raise prices to compensate.
posted by Brockles at 2:17 PM on October 14, 2019 [12 favorites]

I would think that if they stopped letting larger bags past the initial check-in

I always travel with a carry-on only and check in via a self-serve kiosk, so there wouldn't be an opportunity for someone to tell me it was too big. I have very occasionally taken an airline up on the offer to check my bag when it's heavy and I don't want to deal with lifting it up into the luggage compartment. But I'm almost never willing to waste the time waiting for the bag at the other end.
posted by pinochiette at 2:18 PM on October 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Planes weren't initially designed for everyone to bring their clothes for their trip on the plan with them. The assumption was a handbag or a small tote and a coat, maybe a laptop bag or briefcase and people would check their bags. Then airlines started nickel & diming for checked baggage because people want cheap flights & checking a bag is too expensive so everyone bought everything with them into the seating area, which is not designed to have everyone bring a huge bag on. So airlines are kind of hoisted by their own petards, if they drop the bag size limit where it needs to be so everyone has some space in the cabin there will be damn near a riot. But as an outside I find the US habit of trying to bring everything with them on the plane annoying & pointless and most of the time it gets gate checked anyway & you're waiting in the tunnel for your bag anyway.
posted by wwax at 2:19 PM on October 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

In addition to things already said, some things aren't allowed to be checked (Lithium Ion batteries for example) or are likely to be damaged left to the baggage handling system (instruments, cameras).

Allowing a reasonable amount of luggage to be handled by the passengers also helps ensure that when there's a tight layover schedule that all of the luggage gets onto the next flight.
posted by Candleman at 2:21 PM on October 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To clarify: by “no downside” I meant that there’s no downside to bringing the bigger bag on board, instead of checking it before security.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:21 PM on October 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Airlines tier the convenience (or not) of getting overhead bin space commensurate with the class of ticket. First class is self explanatory. I fly Delta all the time and they have three sub-tiers in economy class, and even more if you consider boarding order. I'm always on with the first quarter or so of passengers, so I always have overhead bin space available. The folks with the cheapest tickets boarding last are often out of luck. So in that sense it's a marketing tool - people who ended up having to check their bags last time and hated it might pay the 25-50 bucks to sit a little more toward the front and board a little earlier.
posted by MillMan at 2:24 PM on October 14, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'd challenge your core conceit, that the problem is caused by oversized bags. There isn't even enough room to carry one properly sized carry-on from every passenger. Little RJs are lucky if they could carry 1 full-size carry-on for every 2 passengers. Often one whole side of the plane can't hold _any_ bags in those guys.

Then, there's an additional problem that many leisure travelers put their personal item or their jacket in the overhead bins, and they waste even more of the precious overhead space.

So, I agree there's an overall capacity problem, but I don't think that scrupulously measuring bags would accomplish much of anything in the long-run. Frequent travelers already use compliant luggage, so it'd only help on a few high-tourist routes.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 2:31 PM on October 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Do passengers have much say in which airline they use? I rarely have more than one airline flying where and when I want to go.

It really depends. I've lived near several major airports, I've usually had a choice of at least two carriers. Sometimes you have the inconvenience of an extra stop or a slightly higher ticket price, but from where I live I can usually do Delta or Southwest with about equal pricing and destinations.

But... you also have the choice of not flying at all. I have grown to loathe flying, and am thinking about driving more because the experience is awful. Or just not taking a trip. Airlines have to assume the more annoying the experience is, there will be some attrition not to the competition, but people simply opting out of taking a trip at all. Since I've stopped traveling a great deal for work, and lost my status on Delta, I find that I am also unlikely to even take an unnecessary trip that requires flying.

Also... if airlines suddenly stopped letting passengers do this, the baggage lines would likely get even more lengthy and out of control.

I'm sure baggage fees contribute to the airlines' bottom line, but it's also a way to push people to desired behavior. Stay on one airline and get status, waive the fee. Bring fewer bags to begin with, thus saving weight. That kind of thing.
posted by jzb at 2:33 PM on October 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Remember that running out of space isn't a "bag's too big" issue, it's a "too many bags" issue. The bags fit, but not at one per passenger.

If they reduced the max size of overhead luggage, lots of people would just get new luggage that's the new max size or close enough for gub'mint work. There still wouldn't be enough room in the overhead bins if everyone brought that.

Stopping them would also require having everyone check in with a human, or else who's gonna stop me? TSA doesn't and won't give a shit. So that means hiring enough customer-service agents at, guessing, probably something like $50K/yr cost to the airline each to double or triple what's there now 16-18 hours/day.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 2:36 PM on October 14, 2019

There would also be a lot of complaints if airlines started enforcing their (existing) rules to all passengers. Many travel infrequently and have been used to ignoring all the rules and never getting in trouble.

I know some people who flew on discount carriers and they were aghast at having to follow the rules, as if they were some kind of criminal. Most legacy carriers still sell customer service as one of their key differentiators, so there's a lot of accommodation and non-enforcement, especially in this area of Twitter. The margins are extremely low on each passenger so you don't want a PR issue, and non-frequent flyers aren't likely to choose a carrier based on a carrier's on-time percentage or ease of boarding.
posted by meowzilla at 2:39 PM on October 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

by “no downside” I meant that there’s no downside to bringing the bigger bag on board, instead of checking it before security.

A checked bag can be substantially larger than a carry-on bag, so if you need to carry a lot of stuff, you simply can't do it with a carry-on bag.

Most of the time when I have a checked bag, it's because I have a bunch of stuff - I'll have two checked bags that go up to the size limit for them plus my carry-on bag and laptop bag.

A minority of people do prefer to check bags and don't bring a carry-on bag just to make getting around the airport easier. This is particularly appealing to people with some disabilities.
posted by Candleman at 2:41 PM on October 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would think that if they stopped letting larger bags past the initial check-in

This is the choke point - the airline agents at the ticket/check-in counter already have their hands full with confused and disorganized and late travelers. Dealing with enforcing bag sizes would bring everything to a grinding halt and mean a lot of pissed off flyers. Hiring more people to work the counter would cost more than the couple hundred they might "lose" by waiving the baggage fees.
posted by soundguy99 at 2:42 PM on October 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Airlines make big bucks from cargo
posted by oceano at 3:04 PM on October 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

In the United States, you can't take containers of liquid larger than 3 oz. (about 90mL) in carryon luggage. If you want to, say, bring full-sized shampoo, or bring home a bottle of an exotic beverage, it HAS to be in a checked bag or you will have to throw it away while going through security.
posted by sleeping bear at 4:05 PM on October 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Cargo! That's what I wasn't considering. Thank you.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:12 PM on October 14, 2019

I fly a couple of times a year, on a usually very limited budget, so I am generally pretty happy to gate check my non-electronics/purse carry-on, for a couple of reasons:
- I usually check a bag anyway, because I don't have the patience required to play Is This A Liquid roulette with the TSA. More than once a TSA agent has gone through my makeup bag and decided that my primer and foundation and cream blush are all "liquids" and can't go on the plane today. It's worth the $25 to not have to buy a gajillion travel containers for my pricey hair & skincare products and perfume bottles that won't fit in a ziploc neatly and even if they did the TSA might decide that my half-full 1oz bottle of perfume is "too big/much" and demand I check it or throw it away.
- I can't afford upgrades to better tiers, so there's rarely room for my bag. Since I'm already checking a bag, I figure at least this one's free.
posted by ApathyGirl at 4:23 PM on October 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

There are lots of business flyers (which airlines tend to cater to much more than leisure travelers, even if they're in coach) who have to travel with items that can't be checked for one reason or another.

Speaking from personal experience, there are many times I'm flying with stuff (like lots of big lithium batteries for camera and lighting gear) that isn't allowed in the cargo hold. Also there've been times I've flown with an expensive camera that I wasn't allowed by my employer to check, so I had to bring it onboard.
posted by theory at 4:28 PM on October 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

What you're proposing would piss off business travelers a LOT. Frequent biz fliers don't check bags because it takes more time. You can loose 60 to 90 minutes on every flight dealing with bag check and bag claim at either end of the trip; add that up on two flights a week 35 or 40 weeks a year, and you see why none of us do it. (I say "us;" it's not me anymore, but it was for a long time.)

It's just not worth it, and that's before you factor in the inevitable delayed or lost baggage issues, or even the fees -- yeah, fees suck, but biz fliers flew this way well before baggage fees were a thing.

So it'll never happen. Thank goodness.
Do passengers have much say in which airline they use?
Depends on where you live. In urban areas, typically, yes, there are lots of choices. Even where my brother lives, served by a tiny regional airport, there are two carriers.
Then airlines started nickel & diming for checked baggage because people want cheap flights & checking a bag is too expensive so everyone bought everything with them into the seating area
That's not how it happened. Serious, frequent travelers were carrying rollaboard-style bags (initially, just TravelPro) into the cabin with them long before baggage fees were a thing. I don't have data, but I don't think they took off as "regular person" luggage until after the turn of the century.
posted by uberchet at 5:00 PM on October 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Then airlines started nickel & diming for checked baggage because people want cheap flights & checking a bag is too expensive so everyone bought everything with them into the seating area, which is not designed to have everyone bring a huge bag on

Southwest has two free checked bags, yet that doesn't prevent the tourists on the weekends turning every flight into the first part of the animated movie The American Tale.

I flight "a lot" for work. So much so that I save hours a year by not checking my bags, and I fly between two airports with relatively quick baggage times (SNA and SJC). In fact so much I know I flew with that pilot at least once who had the engine explode on her, and I'm like 80% sure I few with her twice.

Here's my schedule Leave house by 5:30AM pick up coffee at 5:40AM, park at John Wayne by 6:05AM, get through security by 6:10AM, walk up to gate at everyone is lined up to get on to plane at 6:15AM.

In truth, I could probably give you a minute by minute schedule all the way back to 8PM the night before as far as what got packed, at what time, in what order. I fly so much that any wasted minutes add up over years.

Anyway, checking a bag would mean leaving at 5:15AM instead of 5:30, because if I check it in at 6:01AM or later, the kiosk plays a loud sound telling me they can't guarantee my bag will make it, and then the ticket person has to put on a different tag, and perhaps the entire Cal State Fullerton Titan's softball team is in front of me checking in all their stuff this time so I should leave at 5:10AM instead, etc. etc.

I would think that if they stopped letting larger bags past the initial check-in

If I'm not checking the bag, the very first airline employee I make contact with is the person scanning my phone to let me on the plane. There is no one with an opportunity to stop me.
posted by sideshow at 5:01 PM on October 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Do passengers have much say in which airline they use? I rarely have more than one airline flying where and when I want to go.

I live in BFE and I am super loyal to certain airlines who I feel have more decent ways of treating travelers, but I can't always choose. But yeah I usually can choose from among at least five airlines. I am one of those "Never check a bag" people for a few reasons

1. A lost bag can mean I don't have the clothes or stuff I need for the work I am doing
2. What other people said about the time sink which can be huge and if I am just dying to get home I just want to get my bag and GO
3. My clothes are small and I can fit things under the seat because I have short legs, so I don't even have to rely on free overhead space.

And as other people have said, basically the deal isn't larger bags, it's people with a bunch of bags, odd-shaped items, wanting to put everything in the overhead and, realistically, it's a numbers game. There actually isn't room on the plane for everyone to bring the number of bags that everyone is allowed. And yes, the airlines would like to make some money off of people checking bags but realistically they're not going to be able to fly the plane with luggage in the aisles so they have to make it work.

The scenario I usually see is that the gate attendants (not the flight attendants) are the ones who will let you check a bag and then it's just gate-checked, not actually cargo-hold checked (this varies) which is actually a better deal for travelers because you get your bag as your getting off the plane, you don't have to wait in the baggage claim merry-go-round. I will basically never check a bag if I'm traveling for less than a week but I will definitely gate check just to have more legroom.
posted by jessamyn at 6:19 PM on October 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

European low-costs Ryanair and Wizz Air have recently tightened their luggage rules precisely because of lack of room causing flight delays (plus let's nickle and dime passengers some more!), letting people only bring one piece of luggage stowable under your feet for free. For an Airbus 321 with 230 seats, they only let 100 people buy the option to bring a standard carry-on onboard - and judging by my recent flight that is exactly the right amount for the overhead compartments to fit comfortably. Actually mine was a bit of a squeeze because it included the exit row where passengers have to stow everything overhead.

The rule change isn't popular, but it made a very visible improvement to flight delays because boarding is so much more efficient. They're ruthless about luggage sizes too, and there's a cheaper "small checked in bag" option that's equivalent to gate-checking but you do have to drop it off early. Gotta admit it made me even more diligent about checking whether on a given route legacy carrier pricing isn't worth the extra luggage / comfort, even with layovers.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:44 PM on October 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

The other advantage for an airline is that if someone with carry-on only doesn't show up to the flight after checking in, they don't need to find and remove their luggage from the hold, which can delay a flight significantly. (It may mean completely unloading and reloading all of the bags in the worst case. Followed by missing their take-off slot and potentially causing knock-on delays.) Gate-checking is not an issue here, as the owner is present.

Airlines don't really like unaccompanied baggage caused by the owner not turning up. Unaccompanied baggage because they forgot to load it, or decided to give the bags a grand tour of the world by loading it on a different plane is completely different, of course :-)
posted by scorbet at 2:44 AM on October 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I do not check bags; I am a light packer and use a carry-on. But by the time they get to me, in the later boarding groups, the gate agents often just declare the bins full and do mandatory gate-checks on all bags. My carry-on is smaller than the maximum carry-on size -- though not quite small enough to go beneath the seat -- and soft-sided, with no wheels. I really can usually just squeeze it in. Blessedly, they occasionally recognize that and wave me in, though I certainly understand their reluctance to get into a case-by-case debate with everyone remaining in line.

But yes, I am VERY salty when my bag gets gate-checked. Gate-checked used to allow you to just pick it up on your way off of the plane, but now it's almost always sent to cargo.

I would love love love love love for the gate agents to just enforce the goddamn carry-on size rules from the get-go. I disagree that it's mostly number of bags rather than size -- I see all of these oversized bags that are clearly larger than carry-on limits getting trundled onto the plane. Once I board, I see those bags stored sideways in overhead bins, along with extra shopping bags, multiple coats, and this and that to the tune of one or two people solidly packing an entire overhead compartment that should be storing three people's things.

Why don't they just enforce the rules in the first place? Because boarding groups are now almost entirely determined by tier status.
posted by desuetude at 10:19 AM on October 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Well, the idea that frequent / business travelers don't check bags is not correct, both I and many others I know do. After all, if you're a really frequent traveler the downside to checking is minimal --- no line or wait to check, your bag is the first one off. No real additional time (and you can check much closer to takeoff time). At least all of that is true on Delta, I often check ~30 min before boarding when I show up, and the bag is on the carousel by the time I get there.

And its definitely not because you have to pay to check bags. When I fly Southwest (which I avoid if possible, but my most common route is heavily served by them and sometimes they have the only reasonable times) I see more people gate checking / overloaded carryons than I do on Delta which charges (I suspect this is because the route is a 45 min flight full of one day / one night travelers who are less likely to check bags).

As a frequent flyer, my #1 change if I was Airline God would be to charge everyone (including frequent fliers) for carryons and make checked bags free. Of course, this would have to be simultaneous for all airlines, but it would make the actual flying experience much better.
posted by thefoxgod at 3:13 PM on October 16, 2019

I think the broad explanation here is something that Alex Harrowell described as a 'Coasian hell', a system of relationships that sucks but where the individual parties defend their own interests instead of trying to change the system because... they're stuck in the system.

US domestic air travel sucks. It sucks because it is fragile: there's not enough slack to accommodate mechanical issues or crews that hit their legal limits or weather delays etc. There are incentives to lower the up-front fare and turn checked baggage into either an upsell or a perk. There are incentives for air-warrior travellers to carry their bags. There are incentives for gate agents not to piss off Chad Bradleyson III, the corporate VP platinum-miler who flies from Des Moines to O'Hare and back three days a week, when he shows up with his big fuck-off bag, and who's already threatened to switch his company's business from American to United because the lounge ran out of pretzels. Etc.
posted by holgate at 9:51 PM on October 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

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