Carry-on luggage a weighty subject

Last week, while waiting to check-in for my flight to Dallas, I watched a man carry on about his carry-on. An agent asked him to place his bag in the sizing box. It almost made it. But it didn't.

If he could remove the wheels it would fit. But he couldn't. The agent was adamant about the issue. No fit? No go.

After a bitter exchange of words, the traveler forked over $25 to check his bag. He left carrying his computer, camera and several files loosely in his arms. He clearly was not left "holding the bag." But he was left holding a lot of other things. Not to mention the grudge he held against the airline.

Ever since the invention of the wheel and the death of the portable luggage carrier, carry-on luggage has been a weighty subject with both passengers and the airlines.

When checked luggage was free, passengers limited their carry-on luggage. But once the airlines began charging for checked bags, carry-on bags flooded the aisles.

Some passengers board with shoes tied to the outside of their backpacks, along with extra sweatshirts around their waists and arms filled with an array of coats and jackets.

In order to make on-time departures, flight attendants began gate-checking luggage. Frequent fliers quickly picked up on this, and avoided paying for checked luggage by heading for the free, gate-checking deal, which meant more bags to stow. Passengers scrambled to pull their medications, laptops and other valuables out of their bags before they went to the belly of the plane.

But there was a new problem. Passengers, who manage to make it onto the aircraft without setting off the "if the bag won't fit, you gotta quit" alarm, try to force the suitcase into spaces they've never gone in before.

My old flying partner remembers watching a passenger use his shoe to try to shut the overhead bin while his bag protruded a good three inches.

Besides being bulky, these bags are often too heavy to lift. So some travelers expect a flight attendant to heft them into the overhead rack. One of my flying partners slipped a disk in her back while helping a passenger with a bag. She ended up off schedule for several months. And if one of these bags breaks loose from the overhead bin? Look out below.

Airline management tells flight attendants that their job does not include breaking their backs. If a passenger can't stow his own bag, he must gate check it.

As always, the bottom line has to do with the airline's bottom line. So several carriers now charge for carry-on bags. And it's not always a set price. Spirit Airlines charges $26 for a carry-on bag fee purchased at the time of booking online. If you wait to gate check it, expect to pay as much as $100. Other low-fare carriers have done the same.

But cheer up. There's good news at the end of the jetway. With all of these added charges, some passengers are finding it's not worth the hassle and are paying the fee to check their luggage. Which also buys a whole lot of peace of mind. And that means there will be more space in the overhead bin in case you're left holding the bag.

• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached at

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