It’s not new news that the three legacy airlines, American, Delta, and United, have similar carry-on luggage policies, but I guess I missed the day when their policies somehow came into perfect alignment.  For some reason that seems ominous to me.

What piqued my interest was this Yahoo news article of a frequent flyer on AA out of JFK in Business Class who was forced to check a carry-on bag that he’d been taking on board for years all over the world.  The real kicker was–at least in that case–American’s strict adherence to their maximum dimension rules.  The writer was forced to check his bag because one of the three dimensions (length) was an inch over AA’s published carry-on maximum even though the other dimensions (height and width) were less than AA’s published carry-on maximums.  The lesson in that story seems to be that stricter enforcement of existing carry-on policies is coming and that the airlines will no longer be flexible about them.

I looked up the current carry-on luggage maximums on United, Delta, and American and raised an eyebrow when I saw policies at all three legacy carriers are identical.  Maximum linear inches = 45, and maximum dimensions can’t exceed 22 L x 14 W x 9 H, as shown in the following graphics taken from the UA and AA websites:

carry-on bag imageCarry-On Bags Cannot Exceed 22 Inches Long, 14 Inches Wide And 9 Inches Tall

Delta’s website didn’t have a picture, and the words were softer, but the linear and dimensional maximums are the same as UA and AA, that is, 22 x 14 x 9 for a total of 45 linear inches.

The airlines all claim they are enforcing FAA standards, but here is no FAA carry-on standard, as you can read here. FAA just says, “Think small.”  And it suggests as follows: “The maximum size carry-on bag for most airlines is 45 linear inches (the total of the height, width, and depth of the bag).”  Joe Brancatelli reminded me that the FAA rules haven’t changed, only the on-and-off enforcement by individual airlines.

The obvious question is, Are the airlines moving in the direction of tightening the carry-on screws for everybody dragging their stuff behind them in roller bags, even for elite level flyers traveling in the front cabin?  Honestly, I don’t know.  But they don’t care about us, first-time flyer or five million miler, so it seems plausible.

What I do know is that I need to be prepared.  If the carry-on policies, already synchronized by the Big Three like the sun and stars lining up on the Vernal Equinox at Stonehenge, are suddenly enforced, where does that leave me?  After all, I never check my bags–never, ever!

Could I live with the maximum of 45 linear inches, and do all of my expensive bags meet the dimensional maximums of 22 x 14 x 9?  I decided to run an experiment with my family’s luggage to see which ones complied.  I pulled out seven pieces that we have used regularly as carry-on for many years.  I only pulled out the seven that I know for dead certain from long experience fit perfectly into the overhead compartments of every type of mainline airplane without having to be turned sideways.

First I checked all four of our traditional roller bags.  Two are American Tourister, one is a very durable Hartman, and the last is an even more durable Rick Steves bag.

The other three are not standard roller bags.  One is a soft-sided heavy canvas piece made by Henley that’s been all over the world with me on six continents for forty years. It’s been repaired in Florence and in Peru and patched up in the Kalahari in Botswana.  Another is a small over-the shoulder Hartmann garment bag that was a favorite of mine for a long time in consulting.  The last one is an odd duck, a Hartmann hybrid garment bag with wheels and a handle built in.

Measuring each piece (the soft-sided ones I first filled with clothes for an accurate test), I was chagrined to discover that not one is legal in every dimension (22 x 14 x 9), and only one meets the linear max of 45 inches,  Here are the results:

22 x 14 x 10 (46″) – Henley soft-sided canvas bag (one inch too high and exceeds the linear limit)

22 x 16 x 9 (47″) – Hartmann over-the-shoulder garment bag (no wheels or handle) (two inches too wide and exceeds the linear limit)

21 x 20 x 10 (51″) – Hartmann hybrid garment bag with wheels and handle (exceeds two dimensional limits and the linear limit)

23 x 15 x 10 (48″) – Hartmann roller bag (exceeds every dimensional limit by one inch and the linear max by three inches)

22 x 14.5 x 8.5 (45″) – Rick Steves roller bag (comes closest to being legal of any tested, but misses the width limit by a half inch)

20.5 x 14.5 x 9.5 (44.5″) – American Tourister roller bag (under the linear max and one dimensional max but exceeds two dimensional limits)

21 x 14.5 x 10 (45.5″) – American Tourister roller bag (exceeds the linear limit and one dimensional max)

My conclusion is that I am going to have to invest in a whole new set of luggage if the airlines crack down and enforce their own, now uniform, carry-on luggage policies.  No matter how close each of the measurements are above to being legal, none meets the restrictions precisely.

Do I want to throw in the towel, say “Screw it!”, and start checking my bags?  Hell, no.  At worst the airlines lose my luggage or damage it.  At best it’s a long and non value-adding delay waiting at the luggage carousel.

Assuming it happens, would a new focus on carry-on be fair?  Of course not.  Should we be surprised?  Of course not.  Outraged?  Well, about the same as usual.  Mad enough to find alternative carriers to fly on?  The Yahoo news article mentioned that Jet Blue and Southwest have more generous carry-on policies, but for how long?

Maybe it’s time to ask, What are the dimensions of the carry-on pieces in your closet?