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Why Is There Never Room for My Carry-On?! It’s Complicated

Why Is There Never Room for My Carry-On?! It’s Complicated
Jeff Edwards

Why are the overhead bins always so full? Is it because planes are packing on more passengers than ever before? Because it costs extra to check one in before you board? That’s certainly part of the answer. But there are a few more not-so-obvious reasons why there’s no room for your wheelie bag in the cabin.

Nearly everyone who flies regularly on North American airlines will eventually face the unfortunate situation of having to involuntarily gate-check a carry-on bag. Announcements informing passengers waiting to board that the overhead bins are already full have become commonplace in the years since the airlines began charging steep fees for the privilege of placing bags in the baggage hold, but this isn’t the only reason scarce space in the overhead bin has become such valuable real estate.

gate check carry-on bags

The Space Race

In the first quarter of 2019, U.S. carriers collected a whopping $1.3 billion in baggage fees which is nothing to sneeze at. But, baggage fees aren’t the only byproduct of limited bin space.

It also makes priority boarding more valuable. The sooner you get on the plane, the more likely that you’ll be able to keep the goodies in your checked bag with you on the plane. That also makes you more likely to pay extra for priority boarding, fly an airline often for more loyalty points or sign up for a co-branded credit card with early boarding as one of its perks.


Related: Fly With Just a Carry On? These Are the Bags to Use


The Chicken and the Egg

But, there are drawbacks to the race for bin space. There’s the added stress that, on one Southwest flight, resulted in a fistfight. And, while limited overhead bin space may look like it’s all due to an elaborate airline plot to collect more ancillary fees, the problem of cramped in-cabin space has a lot to do with passengers’ changing travel habits. Planes were not designed for everyone to carry-on their bags.

People started carrying on more in the early 2000s… when airlines started charging more for checked luggage… because of rising fuel prices. Then, to compensate for passengers bringing more luggage on board, overhead bins got bigger. But, there are limits to the available space on an airplane, and passenger demand for space has outstripped supply, especially as larger numbers of passengers are flying than ever before on planes that are, sometimes, smaller than ever before: these days, airlines fly more single-aisle airplanes with less overhead space (fewer aisle over which to put overhead bins) whereas, once upon a time, long-haul flights were almost much more likely to take place on twin-aisle planes.


More Solutions, More Problems (Fewer Taxes)

Why don’t airlines make you check every bag? Well, Basic Economy fares that limit you to a personal item come close. But airlines can’t easily abandon overhead bins because business travelers demand them. Because their travel is lucrative for airlines and demands tight turnarounds, airlines have to give those customers the ability to fly with just one bag.

The solution? Space in overhead bins to keep business commuters happy. Then a little more space because when bins are small, passengers take longer to deplane which can cause significant delays.

The problem: bigger overhead bins, especially the higher-capacity pivot bins, are heavier which drives up fuel costs (and baggage revenue down). Plus, flight attendants don’t like them. The Association of Flight Attendants, the country’s biggest cabin crew union, has pushed airlines to cut down on the number and size of carry-ons passengers can bring on the plane “to reduce risks of injury and conflict aboard the aircraft.”

The solution: reduce baggage fees to encourage more people to check their bags. Except, even though the cost of oil has gone down since baggage fees shot up, airlines are unlikely to give them up. That’s not only because they bring in billions in fees and those billions don’t come with federal taxes the way that fare increases do.

The conclusion: it’s hard to keep everyone happy.


A Possible Change of Course

If you’re familiar with Southwest you may have noted that it was kind of ironic that a fight over overhead bin space happened on the one airline that doesn’t charge for checked bags. Southwest has remained an outlier in the baggage fee hike race and, it’s worth noting, their abstinence hasn’t hurt their bottom line. In fact, they’re the only major U.S. airline that has managed to avoid bankruptcy and they remain one of the most profitable US carriers.

But while other airlines don’t appear ready to relinquish baggage fees anytime soon, there are efforts to make overhead bins more user-friendly. The 2019 Aviation Interiors Show in Hamburg featured bins with color-coded lights: red for full, yellow for nearly full, and green for nearly empty.

Diehl Aviation (which designs cabin interiors for Boeing and Airbus) has a prototype for a bookable overhead bin. Passengers will book their space just like they book their seats and be guaranteed room for their roller bag no matter when they board.

However, both options present more costs, potentially more weight, less satisfaction for business passengers, and fewer perks for those who retain airline status (at least in part) for the ability to board first.


View Comments (9)


  1. sdsearch

    January 28, 2020 at 8:05 pm

    One of the problems is that despite the call by airlines to “put your smaller personal item under your seat”, many passengers just throw their rollaboard (often in the orientation that LEAST efficiently uses space) AND then also throw their personal item, BOTH in the overhead bins, with no regard to making space for others. But it’s impractical for airlines to police that (unless perhaps some of the above-mentioned coming automation can do it), because policing that would slow boarding way, way down.

  2. LassiJ

    January 28, 2020 at 11:31 pm

    I would have expected from this article some calculations how many inches of over head space there is available nowadays per seat and for how many seats there are actually space in a common narrow body like B737 or A320.

  3. PhilibertF

    January 29, 2020 at 5:58 am

    There should be mandatory gauging of carry ons; we’ve all seen the way over sized duffel come down the aisle. When I made that remark to a flight attendant, she agreed and said they should make the Thousands Standing Around do it.

    Thousands Standing Around? Yeah, the TSA. There’s always a whole bunch of them, and they’re always just standing around.

  4. NYC96

    January 29, 2020 at 9:47 am

    More bags came onboard when a pilot invented the rollaboard in the early 90’s. The rule was 2 carry-ons, after 9-11 they changed it to one bag and one personal item. Bags were such an issue that flight attendant unions lobbied Congress to get the FAA to limit the number of bags in 1987. You have the bin hog, puts both bags up with their winter coats. Bag space has always been a problem.

  5. pattermj

    January 31, 2020 at 6:54 pm

    Seems simple to me, designate a bin per row, separated into three collapsible portions. Overhead bags must fit into said portion, otherwise check or underneath (if it fits). At <24hrs, enable passengers to offer compensation to others within their row for their bin space. If offer is accepted, said person gets two spots within the bin space. If not, passenger gets standard slot. Seems simple enough with a bit of app interface.

  6. JimD

    February 1, 2020 at 10:46 am

    Re “smaller personal items”. My wife and do not board with the large carryons that a large number of travelers seem to favor. We each have a small computer case type bag and depending on the season maybe a jacket. I am not going to put them on the floor so that people with large carryons (you know the ones who have hammer their suitcases into the compartment) can avoid checking a bag. You buy a seat you are entitled to a share of the overhead, a share, not the entire overhead.

  7. rjpjr

    February 1, 2020 at 10:58 am

    The space under the seat is where I store my feet.

  8. Giblets

    February 4, 2020 at 7:57 pm

    Agree that one of the real issues is the ‘personal item’.
    Firstly the likes of BA put a nice little paper tag on the bag to indicate the item should go under the seat…cue passengers ripping of the tag as the board, and stuffing them in the overhead bins anyway.
    Second is the size of them, no one would have a problem with a small clutch bag or slim laptop bag, but the reality is that many of the ‘personal items’ would barely fit the check in sizing guides, and definitely need to go in the overhead bins (then you add duty free!). The many passengers will try and get their jacket in there (not on top of their bag, but neatly to the side.

  9. Dublin_rfk

    February 14, 2020 at 6:45 am

    Gain status. Board first. Problem solved.

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