Shrinking carry-on luggage angst

Business travelers’ decades-long distrust of airline management runs deep for good reason, and this week’s airline news reports of some overseas carriers’ intent to shrink carry-on bag size maximums (see, for example, here) bring yet another slap in the face.  The trade organization IATA (International Air Transport Association) is recommending a max carry-on limit of 55 x 35 x 20 cm (21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches).

Such dictums are always sugar-coated in customer service improvement language, and this one is no exception.  IATA claims it will give every passenger a chance to share the overhead and underseat space on board.

Of course they didn’t ask their customers, not even their biggest spenders, that is, us business flyers. No, they just decided unilaterally what was “right” based on no facts, no data, and no statistically accurate public opinion surveys.  As usual, the airlines dictate, and they expect us to touch our forelocks and grovel.

The airline industry brought the carry-on crisis on themselves when they started charging hefty sums to non-elite customers for every bag checked.  The fact that most carriers are none too swift about bag retrieval at destination merely adds to the frustration of travelers waiting for a half hour or better at the luggage carousel.  Many people decided while fuming there not to part with all those shekels on their next flight and packed their belongings into carry-on bags instead.  Anybody with half a brain could see that coming, yet the geniuses that run the world’s airlines did not.

So this is a problem of the airlines’ own making, yet they want to foist their problem off as an unfunded mandate onto their customers.  How is that fair?  Of course, it is not.  Why should we pay for their failure to plan and manage their own operation?

To be perfectly clear, the shrinking carry-on is NOT a domestic U.S. airline issue. This one…so far…is strictly an international initiative.  The key words, though, are “so far.”  You can bet that American air carriers will follow suit sooner or later if this catches on overseas.  So let’s try to think through the implications and consequences should that occur.

First, most U.S. carriers allow carry-on to be up to 22 x 14 x 9 inches now (for one matrix of current standards, see here).  The new standard of 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches is 21.5% fewer cubic inches than the current standard.  Especially egregious is the reduction in depth from 9 inches to 7.5 inches.  I cannot find any 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 bags on Amazon.  Maybe they are there, and I just missed them.

Second, I don’t want to throw away my perfectly good and very expensive carry-on luggage that doesn’t meet the new dimensional criteria just because of a mercurial management decision based on no facts or polls whatsoever.   I guess I can store it for my next Amtrak journey or tramp steamer voyage.  There is no carry-on restriction for American train travel.

Third, I would have to buy four new carry-on bags, one for me and one each for my wife and two kids.  That won’t be cheap.

Fourth, once I have paid the piper for 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inch carry-on bags, who is to say the airlines won’t shrink the carry-on maximum size limits even further?  Will I have to buy MORE and SMALLER bags in the future?

Fifth, will the flight attendants and cockpit crew be given a pass?  We’ve all seen their carry-on bags, and I’d be surprised if they even meet the existing dimensional standard, let alone the new 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 limit.  If the rules don’t apply to airline employees, how will that go down among those of us who are paying their salaries? (If only their carry-on bags were as small as Barbie’s…)


Sixth, the new dimensions have shrunk by 21.5% measured in cubic inches.  Does that mean if I pack for five days now that I will have to chuck out a day’s worth of clean clothes? Which means my five day trip just shrank to four?  That is, assuming I can even find a carry-on bag that’s just 7.5″ deep.  Some expanding file folders are bigger than that.

Seventh and lastly, I wonder how the luggage industry feels about the new smaller dimensions.  After all, they were not consulted any more than we the traveling suckers were.  Presumably, therefore, bagmakers are just as confused as we are.  They will have to retool their factories and develop production schedules based on forecast demand for that new, smaller bag size.  They may decide to hedge their bets and not make too many bags, an action which would drive up prices on the few new bags manufactured.  After all, there are millions of their brand new carry-on bags out there for sale right now that are instantly obsolete under the new standard and will never be sold to savvy flyers.

So what’s next, or what’s the alternative?  One airline strategy might be to simply keep the current standard dimensional maximums and charge for each piece of carry-on just like they do for luggage carried in the belly.  That would not be hard to accomplish, and I am sure they’d make exceptions, as they do now, for elite flyers.  If carry-on cost as much as regular checked bags, I imagine a lot more people would opt to check their luggage, thereby freeing up a lot of overhead bin space.  A few statistically accurate surveys could determine whether my surmise is accurate.

Otherwise, what is their end game?  I don’t think they have one.  Airline management doesn’t have a good track record of considering the unintended consequences of their actions.  But sooner or later, maybe we’ll only be allowed to carry on board our smartphone.  And, you know, as phones get ever larger (think iPhone 6 Plus), the airlines could institute a dimensional size limit even on them.

Sound crazy?  Well, who ever thought we’d see a tiny 7.5 inch luggage depth limit?

10 thoughts on “Shrinking carry-on luggage angst

  1. “There is no carry-on restriction for American train travel.” Uh, that’s not true. Yesterday I happened to be checking the Amtrak train from Washington DC to White Sulphur Springs, W. VA, and there are indeed restrictions on baggage size. I didn’t bother to check other trains, but if Amtrak does this on one route, it surely does it on others.

  2. I would think the luggage manufacturers are jumping with joy. That’s a lotta bags that will end up in the basement or at Goodwill. Of course, that also depends upon the airlines actually being willing to enforce any standards. I just got off a United flight where a good number of the carry on bags were well beyond any sensible size. United also seems to have recognized the folly of their size restrictions: they will now gate check just about any bag that you’re willing to leave on the jetway.

  3. I’m going on a month long trip to Europe in a few weeks. In preparation I ordered a ultra lightweight carry on, a 22 inch. It arrived and I was amazed at its tiny size. I just looked at the description and I find that it is only 7.5″ deep. I am planning quite a bit of train travel ending with a river cruise. If I can figure out how to bring my necessary items in this and just another tote bag, I know it will make my travel life easier. I am traveling solo for most of this trip and I have experienced first hand how difficult it can be to lug a giant heavy suitcase from place to place. I’m a senior single woman. I have been systematically paring down what I bring in an effort to find the ideal size and weight for me. I got this bag through Amazon so I know that they are already carrying this size.

  4. The airlines have failed to enforce the size limits of carry-on luggage and now we are going to be punished for their collective failures. Before the airlines cause us to purchase new luggage, they should make every passenger fit their carry-on into luggage boxes at the gates and, if the luggage does not fit (or there are too many bags), “Book ’em, Danno!” Punish the guilty!!

  5. Realize that people lay their carry-on bag flat in the overhead bins; so how is that 1 1/2 inch going to increase space. Even if people change to sideways, the gain is 1 1/2 inch per bag, and each bin holds at most 3 or 4 bags, so how is it going to fit another piece of luggage??

  6. All they really need to do is enforce the current size limits and eliminate the very oversized bags some people try to stuff in the overhead bins.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s