THE NEW THIN LINE BETWEEN CARRY-ON AND CHECKED BAGS
Confusing differences in how airlines measure luggage can create frustration for passengers checking in.
The same luggage that fits in a United Airlines bag sizer might not fit in Delta’s sizer. The airlines both say carry-on bags should be 22 inches tall, 14 inches wide and 9 inches deep. PHOTO: CARRICK MOLLENKAMP FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Tightening airline standards are forcing travelers to buy new luggage, but the dimensions may be misleading. I’ve traveled for many years with a Travelpro 22-inch rollaboard bag. When one finally wore out, I replaced it with the same 22-inch rollaboard bag. Travelpro markets it as compliant with airline size limits, most of which restrict bags to 22 inches in length. The bag slides easily into most any overhead bin.
But when British Airways had a sizing box at a gate for a recent flight and made all passengers put their bag in the box, mine didn’t fit and had to be checked. The same fate befell many bags on that flight.
A few weeks later on an American Airlines flight leaving Phoenix, the same thing: Gate agents were telling passengers to put their carry-ons in the bag sizer as they headed for the plane. Many typical, well-traveled bags didn’t fit.
Travelpro and other luggage makers say the luggage industry practice in the U.S. is to size bags by the dimensions of the packing area without counting wheels and handles. At a luggage store, a Briggs & Riley 22-inch rollaboard stands 23 inches tall when you put a tape measure next to it. So does a Victorinox 22-inch bag.
During recent visits to Macy’s and Bag ’n Baggage, salesmen claimed the bags fit airline sizers and complied with airline specifications.
“We physically test our carry-on bags in a sizer before releasing [the design] for production,” says Scott Applebee, Travelpro’s vice president of marketing. But the tape measure shows United’s sizer is actually larger than those of Delta, American and other airlines with 22-inch limits.
Last year when it began strictly enforcing carry-on size limits, United decided to build in an inch of forgiveness. The sizer is labeled with limits of 22 inches tall, 14 inches wide and 9 inches deep, but the box is actually built with an extra inch in all three dimensions, United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson says. American, Delta, British Airways and others have sizers at exactly 22 inches, not 23.
Travelpro’s Mr. Applebee says he didn’t know. “I will pass this on to our design team to have them check the measurements on our sizer and evaluate options,” he says. “From our research, we chose United because they were the most rigorous in their enforcement of the sizing guidelines.”
Mr. Applebee notes that bag sizing is a moving target and enforcement varies by airline and flight. Travelpro, he says, has received few complaints about bag sizes and doesn’t want its customers “to have to check their carry-on bag and pay the airline fees, but we are also obligated to give them packing space.”
Tumi, a high-end line, shortened its bags to 22 inches, including wheels and appendages, over “the last few years” because of airline limits, a spokeswoman says. Samsonite, which includes American Tourister, Hartmann, High Sierra and other brands, says it, too, sizes to meet airline specifications now.
Eagle Creek also includes wheels and handles in its sizing. Some bags have come out of manufacturing slightly larger than specs and drawn complaints because they didn’t fit airline size limits. When the company hears of such problems, they are fixed, an Eagle Creek spokeswoman says.
Bag sizing became a bigger issue when major airlines began charging to check bags in 2008, prompting passengers to carry on more stuff to avoid fees. As airlines have installed more seats into jets over the past few years, more passengers now compete for the same overhead bin space.
Bigger bags, and more of them, means many passengers at the end of the boarding line often can’t find overhead bin space and end up having bags checked at the gate. Since that’s time-consuming and can lead to departure delays, airlines have stepped up enforcement of bag sizes to cull large bags from taking overhead bin space. On full flights, gate agents often have bag sizers and bag-tag printers nearby so they can quickly check if bags comply with size limits.
The International Air Transport Association, which represents airlines, proposed a world-wide standard for carry-on bags called Cabin OK earlier this year. The group said its standard would bring “common sense and order to the problem of differing sizes for carry-on bags.” But the initiative drew quick fire from travelers, and some airlines, because the dimensions of a Cabin OK bag were considerably smaller than the maximum allowed on many airlines.
Of course, new standards mean a chance to sell new luggage. Travelpro and other manufacturers say they had bags in development to meet the Cabin OK standard before IATA put the move on hold.
Airlines continue to tinker with allowable bag sizes, which have shrunk over the years. Effective Tuesday, British Airways slashed the size allowed for “personal items”—a second carry-on bag such as a purse, backpack or computer bag. Most airlines allow passengers to bring one carry-on and one personal item onboard.
British Airways had allowed a personal item up to 18 by 14 by 8 inches. The new standard drops that 43% in cubic space, to 16 by 12 by 6 inches, a good-sized purse or tote bag. Checked baggage, too, has seen size limits reduced. Most airlines now limit the weight of each checked bag to 50 pounds. But a few, including discounters Spirit and Allegiant, cap weight at 40 pounds per bag. Bags heavier than that get hit with overweight baggage fees.
I have two huge bags once used for family trips that are now obsolete. My family proudly dubbed them “rolling coffins.” Time to give them away. And what of my carry-on bag? I decided the uncertainty of having to occasionally check the bag at the gate wasn’t worth the risk.
Having the bag taken away from you suddenly can spell trouble if you have valuables or medications inside, or if it doesn’t get delivered right away. And my wife points out that waiting at the baggage carousel makes me grumpy. So I bought a 22-inch Eagle Creek rollaboard that measures 22 inches and fits most airline sizers. It has less packing space, but it’s legal.