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How Do We Feel About a Future With No Carry-On Bags? 4 min read
The Atlantic

How Do We Feel About a Future With No Carry-On Bags?

Too many bags, not enough space. What are some realistic solutions?

By Cary Littlejohn

I recently booked a flight to make use of a travel voucher I had. It wasn't for a lot of money, so I was limited in what kind of flights (and to where) I could book if I wanted the voucher to cover as much of the cost as possible.

Right before I clicked on the final step to pay for the flight, I realized that I wasn't buying an Economy ticket; I was buying a Basic Economy.

Which, in case you haven't flown in a while, is a worse version of tickets for the same seats that you can access with an Economy ticket. One of the biggest limitations, aside from a lack of refunds, is baggage–namely, the absence of a carry-on.

This was enough to cause me to pause before buying. Did I really want to be without a carry-on?

I eventually bought the ticket, but my reasons for hesitation were more than merely liking to travel with too much stuff. I view it as a belt-and-suspenders precaution: I pack my carry-on with enough complete set of items to sustain me if my checked luggage were to go missing. It's not merely overflow; it's an insurance policy. I'm sure many pack the same way.

But what if we didn't?

That's one of the more extreme solutions posed in this recent Atlantic piece about carry-on bags.

The Carry-On-Baggage Bubble Is About to Pop
Airplanes aren’t made for this much luggage

It details some of the factors that led to the influx of carry-on bags.

At the same time, travelers have been given new incentives to engage in the aisle scrum for bin space. “Back in the day, we used to buy an airline ticket and many things were included,” Laurie Garrow, a civil-engineering professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who specializes in aviation-travel behavior, told me. “And then, after the 2008 financial crisis, that’s when the de-bundling started.” Under pressure from rising fuel costs, competition from low-cost carriers, and other factors, airlines separated standard perks such as free checked bags into individual services, which travelers could buy or forgo. To dodge those added costs, more people chose to carry on.

Though this can't be the only driver of our more-bags, fewer-space reality. Some airlines, like Southwest, offer two free checked bags yet still see passengers stuffing the overhead bins full. Certain tiers of tickets, much higher than my Basic Economy, also include in their price a checked bag. But still people forego the option for carry-on. Perhaps out of habit developed by the Great De-bundling. Perhaps out of belt-and-suspenders redundancy like me. But carrying on all the same.

The piece details some of the options being considered by airlines.

Boeing has researched and defined the maximum volume that a carry-on bag might reasonably occupy, given current consumer preferences and trends in luggage manufacturing. Teague, the firm that has designed all of Boeing’s aircraft interiors since 1946 (when overhead bins were nothing more than hat racks), incorporates that figure into its holistic vision of an aircraft’s interior: windows, lavatories, galleys, and, yes, overhead bins. Innovations in the latter tend to go in one direction only: “It’s like an arms race between Airbus and Boeing over who has the biggest bins,” David Young, a Teague principal industrial designer who has worked on cabin features for 20 years, told me.

(Insert joke here about how Boeing probably has bigger fish to fry than worrying about overhead bin space.)

David Young, the designer, said that the bins have basically reached their maximum size, so if changes are going to come, it's going to have to be in the form of alternatives beyond "just make them bigger."

This is why he suggests the radical idea of passengers simply electing not to bring them.

The author seems to know this is unlikely.

But the carry-on crisis won’t be solved by asking passengers to behave more sensibly. For the moment, we can’t even seem to figure out how to use the newer, more capacious bins the way we’re meant to. On my flight back home, passengers loaded them haphazardly, with some bags laid flat instead of on their side. As a result, those bins carried four bags at most, not six. When I asked my flight attendant how passengers respond to her instruction to stow each bag “like a book,” she shrugged. “I don’t know; sometimes I stack books flat on my shelves.”

These are the exact behaviors and attitudes that rob me of any faith in humanity; you can't trust things to work the way they're "supposed to," which is why I never simply trust a checked bag will arrive at my location and rarely forego a carry-on.

But maybe my impending Basic Economy trip can make a believer of me.