MINNEAPOLIS — Fliers can stop sharpening their elbows. Overhead bins are getting bigger.
Packed planes and a high volume of carry-ons are forcing airlines to expand the space above passenger's heads. United and Delta are the latest airlines to replace or upgrade bins so they hold more luggage. And engineers at Boeing are designing jet interiors with today's bulkier luggage in mind.
It's a chance to placate passengers who feel like they're thrown into a roller derby every time they board a plane. Because of fees on checked bags, more passengers are bringing carry-ons, which are growing in size. And with planes more crowded than ever, bins fill up before everyone has reached their seat. Travelers fight physics and one another to shove one more bag overhead. Or they're forced to check luggage at the gate.
The result is upset travelers, harried flight attendants and delays.
The percentage of passengers bringing bags on board has hovered around 87 percent in recent years, United Continental says. And "the size of the carry-on has increased ... They are stretching the limits of their bags," says Scott O'Leary, managing director of customer solutions at United Continental Holdings.
Expanding bins is a smart way for airlines to set themselves apart, says Henry Harteveldt, who leads airline and travel analysis at Atmosphere Research Group, a market research firm. "Especially if they cater to the business traveler, they're hoping it will give them a small but noticeable competitive advantage."
At first blush, it might seem like airlines risk giving away fees if more people can fit carry-ons on board. But they're not risking much as it turns out.
Airlines often waive bag fees when luggage can't fit overhead and must be checked at the gate. And business travelers are often exempt from baggage fees anyway.
In designing bins on its new 787, Boeing sent workers to Costco and other stores to buy roll-aboard bags to make sure they would fit. The 787-8 holds 10 percent more carry-on bags than the larger 777, even though the volume inside the bins is about the same.
For passengers, "volume doesn't really matter. It's whether or not my bag fits," says Ken Craver, Boeing's cabin expert.
The extra space also makes it more likely that bags will end up close to the passenger who brought them.
"They don't want it 20 rows behind them or 20 rows in front of them, because that causes a lot of anxiety," Craver says.
Bigger bins help. So would passengers who follow the rules about carry-on sizes.
United is trying to be stricter about carry-on sizes. It has been running an experiment at a few airports, where agents are told to look out for bags that are too big or passengers who bring too many. Oversized bags are checked at the gate. As a result, there's more room to stow carry-ons. United declined to identify the airports.
American is also trying to be tougher about carry-on sizes. At every gate, it has installed new size-checking boxes with three hard sides. Bags either slide in or they don't. The old checkers had no walls, so it was easier to fudge. Spokesman Tim Smith says the new boxes act as an arbiter when customers deny that their carry-on is too bulky. American will check a bag for free if it's too big.