If you've ever flown on an airline you've seen them. They travel like refugees fleeing a foreign land, their belongings strapped to their backs: purses the size of steamer trunks, garment bags stuffed like giant raviolis, backpacks that would stagger a Marine. They are the carry-on travelers.
No more. Well, maybe no more.
The nation's major airlines have declared war on passengers who insist on bringing all their luggage into the passenger cabin with them. The recent boom in air travel, fueled in part by cut-rate air fares, means that airlines have found themselves dealing with full flights, crowded airports, and passengers refusing to check bags for fear they'll never see them again.
The result is a carry-on overload that has not only delayed many flights but also angered many latecomers who have discovered there's no room in the bin.
The assault on carry-on bags is being led by United Airlines, which last month began strictly enforcing its nationwide "Know Your Limit" campaign. The campaign, begun in May, is designed to cut down on the number and size of carry-on items. United is restricting all passengers to two carry-ons, each no more than 45 inches in height, width, and depth combined. That includes briefcases, computers, cameras, and large purses.
The first test for the new, tougher carry-on limits came during the Thanksgiving holiday, the busiest weekend of the year for the airlines. But if a recent sampling of flights out of Washington's Reagan National Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport are any indication, the test may prove a tough lesson for everyone involved.
"We're not backing off," insists Christopher Bowers, United's senior vice president in charge of North American operations, who says airlines have to manage luggage better in a travel world where being on time has become sacred. Where it can, United plans to put a metal template over the front of airport security scanners to limit bags to no more than 14 inches wide and 9 inches deep. If bags don't fit, they have to be checked.
The new rules will apply to everyone, first class or coach, Bowers said. They will even affect Bowers, whose own carry-on garment bag is now too big and has to be checked.
Even the nation's luggage makers are getting into the act. Working with the airlines, they are designing smaller carry-on bags to meet the new standards. Others are printing thousands of marketing tags -- perhaps in time for Christmas shopping -- to tell shoppers which bags meet the tighter restrictions.
And in the process, at least one bag maker suggests the ubiquitous carry-on garment bag may be on its way out. "At this point, it's basically toast," said Skip Kotkins, president of Skyway Luggage Co., one of the nation's largest luggage manufacturers.
Meanwhile, Samsonite Corp., the nation's largest luggage maker, is upgrading and promoting its renowned hard-sided suitcases as the luggage that won't be easily crushed in its new home in the belly of the plane.
Although all but one major carrier -- Continental Airlines -- insist they are cracking down on carry-on violators, enforcement appears to vary from flight to flight, even at United. It all depends on whether the flight is full: The more crowded the flight, the stricter the gate attendants.
One thing is certain. The earlier passengers get on a plane, the better the chances of getting their luggage on board with them. With passengers normally boarded by row numbers from the rear of the plane, those sitting in the back are more likely to catch a break with gate agents and flight attendants. As the overhead bins fill up, the airline is apt to get stricter with the remaining passengers waiting at the gate about what can be carried aboard.
Most major airlines have warning signs and some sort of bin or metal frame in which to test whether a bag meets their carry-on specifications. The signs range from United's "Reasonable Carry-On" campaign and Delta's invitation to "Put Your Luggage to the Size-Wise Test" to American's "Am I Too Big?" and Southwest's "Don't Be a Bin Hog." US Airways has a regular measuring tape at each gate to help agents prove to passengers their bags are too big.
United's Bowers ties the new carry-on policy to the airline's need to maintain its on-time performance in today's crowded skies. He called on-time performance "the key measure of reliability" and said it is getting harder and harder to maintain United's complex schedules trying to stuff a plane with a full load of passengers in airports designed to handle planes that are only 60 percent to 70 percent full.
As a result, Bowers insists the new carry-on policy is needed. Since the airline began its carry-on education campaign, United has "experienced a sharp reduction in the overall volume of carry-on baggage," Bowers said.
He also acknowledged that many passengers don't want to check their bags for fear the airline will lose them or that it will take longer to retrieve luggage than it took to complete the flight. "If we are going to expect customers to check their bags instead of dragging them on board, we recognize that we need to improve baggage check-in, handling, and delivery," Bowers said.
He said United is investing more than $10 million to improve its baggage handling. "We are buying ground equipment, improving our automated [sorting] systems, and adding manpower and front-line supervision."
Improving baggage handling is the key to reducing carry-ons, said Anne DeCicco, president of the Luggage and Leather Goods Manufacturers of America. "People do not carry bags on because it's convenient; they do it because they're afraid bags will be damaged, lost, or won't arrive at their destination on time."
That's why Washington resident Carol Light was carrying a full load -- a stuffed carry-on, a swollen backpack and an oversized purse -- on her way to Tampa, Fla. "On my very first business trip, I went west to Hong Kong, my luggage went east to Hong Kong, and it took two days for my clothes to catch up with me. It was awful."
On Light's flight another passenger, who was carrying only a book, looked at her load and said curtly, "It's my pet peeve. It slows up travel and delays flights. I wish they would restrict carry-ons to a purse and a backpack."
Carry on luggage policies by airline:
American: Limit of two carry-ons; each bag is to be no bigger than 45 inches in combined height, length, and width. Carry-ons include cameras and briefcases but not handbags, coats, canes, walkers, or other assistive devices.
Special treatment: First-class and business-class passengers can carry on more items because there's more space. Strollers are checked at gate and returned at jet bridge on arrival.
Continental: No specific limits -- depends on the flight and space availability; airline is enlarging carry-on space in overhead bins on its planes.
Delta: Limit of two carry-ons; each must weigh less than 40 pounds and be no bigger than 24 inches long, 16 inches high, and 10 inches wide. Carry-ons include computers, briefcases, and duty-free purchases but not handbags, coats, food for onboard consumption, crutches, canes, and other assistive devices, umbrellas, reasonable amount of reading material, strollers, and car seats.
Special treatment: Car seats not used in flight must be checked. Violins and other delicate items that don't fit the measurements must be checked.
Northwest: Limit of one carry-on with maximum dimensions of 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches plus one other "special item," which may include a briefcase, laptop computer, large purse, camera, infant car seat, diaper bag, or stroller. Carry-ons do not include small handbags, coats, umbrellas, canes, walkers, crutches, collapsible manual wheelchairs, or reading material.
Special treatment: Passengers flying first class, world business class, or members of International Gold Elite or WorldPerks Gold allowed one extra carry-on.
TWA: Limit of two items, with each having maximum dimensions of 10 inches wide, 16 inches high, and 24 inches long. Carry-ons include handbags, computers, briefcases, and baby strollers but not coats and umbrellas, canes, walkers, and cameras.
Special treatment: On international flights, one extra carry-on is allowed for business-class travelers; on domestic flights, same rules apply to all passengers.
United: Limit of two items, each no more than 45 linear inches (length plus width and height); at some airports, there will be a 9-inch-by-14-inch "template" at security checkpoints. If luggage doesn't fit, bag must be checked. Carry-ons include briefcases, computers, large purses, cameras, and strollers (can be checked at gate) but not small purses (less than 25 linear inches), coats, child safety seats used in flight, canes, walkers, and other assistive devices.
US Airways: Two bags are permitted. Maximum for overhead bin is 24 inches by 16 inches by 10 inches; underneath seat maxiumum is 21 inches by 16 inches by 8 inches. On aircraft with valet bag bins, maximum is 45 inches by 23.5 inches by 4 inches. Carry-ons include briefcases and laptops but not handbags or camera bags (not exceeding 18 inches by 12 inches by 4 inches), coats, umbrellas, reading material canes, child safety seats, or strollers, if they fit.
Special treatment: Same rules for everybody, including passengers on the US Airways Shuttle and Metrojet.
FRANK SWOBODA and CAROLINE E. MAYER - Bergen Record (Newspaper) Corporation