Americans and their baggage are not easily parted. For the average US airline passenger, travelling 'light' has little to do with restraint at the packing stage and much to do with how much he or she can haul past the flight attendant and hurl into an overhead bin.

For maximum effect, the passenger needs to be armed with either a huge, expanding garment bag or a roll-on cabin case with built-in hooks for attaching additional bags. Toss over the right shoulder a tote bag that billows out sufficiently to accommodate three drawers' worth of sweaters and socks, then tuck under the left arm a briefcase with a laptop computer, and the passenger is ready for boarding.

But most passengers are boarding narrowbody aircraft that offer limited overhead storage space and, with load factors in the US at an all-time high, the result is chaos at the boarding gate. Fights have been known to break out; one passenger is said to have knocked a flight attendant to the floor when it was suggest-ed that her daughter's oversized bag should be checked in. Flights are being already delayed because of the length of time it takes to deal with cabin baggage.

Not surprisingly, many in the industry describe the problem of excess cabin baggage as acute. The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) staged a conference entirely devoted to the issue in Washington DC last November. The AFA's main argument is that the current regulations regarding carry-on baggage are not working.

The rules laid down by the Federal Aviation Administration in 1989 require an airline to establish its own policy for carry-on bags - which the FAA has to approve - and ensure that all bags are safely stowed away for take-off and landing. The AFA is calling for more specific guidelines to be applied on a mandatory basis equally across the industry.

The AFA would also like any new rules to be enforced long before the passenger reaches the aircraft - ideally, before he or she passes the security gates so that flight attendants are not left to separate luggage from unwilling travellers. 'Decisive action is required because each day, passengers are presented with new options for hauling more baggage onto the aircraft,' says the AFA's international president, Patricia Friend.'Today's high-tech suitcases, rolling luggage, lightweight sacks, easy-to-carry backpacks and squishy-sided totes are often advertised as meeting FAA guidelines for carry-ons when, in fact, they don't.'

Friend says that enforcement is often left to the flight attendants.'We are obliged to settle disputes as passengers fight for control of overhead bins; pushing, shoving, hoisting and heaving huge, overstuffed bags into too little space.'

The AFA claims that at least 4,000 passengers and flight attendants are injured each year through incidents involving carry-on luggage. Moreover, many passengers have become preoccupied with trying to drag their bags out of the bins during emergency evacuations.

The AFA is particularly concerned at a tendency by non-US airlines to adopt the more lenient attitudes of their US codeshare partners by allowing each passenger two carry-on bags when they used to permit just one. 'For carry-on baggage rules, erosion of best practices is a reality in the global arena,' remarks Friend.

The FAA says it is examining possible new regulations for the long-term, but that the legislative process is too long-winded to be of immediate help. The FAA therefore plans to work with industry and labour to establish guidelines to ease the current problems as quickly as possible.

New legislation may prove unnecessary. The Air Transport Association has formed a carry-on baggage task force which was due to hold its first meeting last December. 'We recognise that there is a problem,' says an ATA official. 'But we think there has to be a solution which is broader than just new rules.' Among the potential solutions to be investigated by the task force will be how to keep the passenger better informed about what can be regarded as carry-on, and more mechanical solutions such as secondary barriers within overhead bins to prevent luggage spilling out.

In the absence of new policy guidelines, individual airlines are pursuing their own strategies to curb baggage rage, albeit with mixed results. United Airlines launched a trial on 1 December 1997 restricting its lowest fare passengers to one carry-on item only. The strategy is being piloted on flights from Des Moines, Iowa, to Chicago and Denver. and passengers are informed when they make a reservation of the special restrictions. United hopes that the boarding process will be speeded up and that more carry-on room will be available for business travellers paying higher fares. The experiment has already been attacked, however, by some US senators who claim it discriminates against the air fare bargain hunter.

American Airlines has come out in support of what the AFA is after, namely intervention by the FAA. It has written to FAA administrator Jane Garvey requesting that a two-bag limit be uniformly applied across all US airlines. Clearly, that would still not help matters if every passenger carried two large bags on board the aircraft. But the FAA is believed to be in favour of allowing two items per passenger if the total carry-on weight does not exceed 20 pounds and a garment bag or roll-on suitcase is not carried in combination with a laptop and a briefcase.

The combination of a policy vacuum and airlines' desire to marry safety and customer service is clearly illustrated by Northwest Airlines' 'one-plus' policy, which has been recently applied to all of its flights. This limits non-premium passengers to one carry-on bag plus a briefcase, a laptop computer or a handbag. So far, so good . . . until the list of permissible additional items is rolled out. As well as the one-plus items, a passenger may take on board either a coat, an umbrella, cane, crutches, brace or prostheses, wheelchair, stroller, infant seat and diaper (nappy) bag. Any room for a kitchen sink up there?

Karen Walker

Source: Airline Business