3 Good Solutions to the Crowded Overhead Bin Problem

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Lately, airline passengers overstuffing overhead bins has become a prominent problem. First, Spirit announced that it would start charging for overhead bin luggage, in part to solve it. Then, a JetBlue flight attendant's colorful meltdown made national news, which was triggered by getting hit in the head when an overfilled overhead bin door flew open. A New York Times article by Joe Sharkey examines the issue, and the tension between courteous flight attendants and cranky passengers the problem has caused. But a solution isn't nearly as elusive as he says.

He writes:

It is clear that there are no good solutions to the problem, even though Spirit Airlines has drummed up its own answer. The fact is, most business travelers need to bring onboard a reasonably sized bag that requires overhead stowage. At the same time, crowded planes and limited space guarantee chronic frustration that often pits overworked flight attendants against overstressed passengers.

Right, but most passengers like a snack on a several-hour flight too, but many airlines charge for that. In fact, there are "good solutions," and Spirit figured out the way to approach the problem: stop encouraging passengers to carry on luggage.

This change can be made in at least three ways. The first is Spirit's strategy: make it more expensive to carry-on luggage than to check bags. If it cost $30 to carry-on and $10 to check, I can almost guarantee that you would see a vast improvement in amount of free overhead bin space.

Second, if airlines don't want to create another fee, then eliminate the one for regular-sized checked bags and increase ticket prices accordingly. I have often crammed as much as possible into my carry-on-sized suitcase to avoid the fee associated with bringing a larger bag that would have to be checked. After all, doing so can save you a significant amount of money on a round trip.

A third alternative is to price all luggage -- whether carry-on or checked -- based on weight. Then, flyers will still have an incentive to pack light to save airlines money on fuel, but won't have a disincentive to check. If it were free to check, some passengers would still likely prefer to carry-on due to fears of lost luggage, but surely more would be open to checking.

Sharkey says airlines have rejected such notions, however:

Airlines, which generated $2.7 billion in revenue from fees for checking bags last year, have basically shrugged off the overhead-bin problem. That has turned the issue over to passengers and flight attendants to work out, usually unhappily. With most flights full, anxieties and tensions associated with stowing carry-on bags are soaring.

On a U.S. Air flight recently, I was one of the unlucky passengers whose suitcase didn't fit in the already packed bins -- and I boarded when the plane was less than half full. This problem made boarding much more cumbersome, as all of the passengers with excess baggage had to find a spot to wait until they could make their way back to the front of the plane with their suitcase to check it after everyone else was seated. Even beyond the frustration this causes, there's little doubt that it must create delays as boarding times increase.

Speaking to a flight attendant that evening, I said, "Ya know, you guys should adopt that new policy Spirit has where people have to pay to carry-on luggage." Her eyes got starry as she sighed, "God, wouldn't that be great?" It's pretty unfortunate that airline management isn't taking this issue more seriously. There are good solutions to the problem, and they should stop ignoring them.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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