Carry-on luggage is every flight attendant’s worst nightmare. It blocks emergency exits, causes missed connections as it’s wrestled in and out of planes and injures many passengers every year by falling out of overhead bins.
Government rules limit carry-on bags to two small pieces of luggage, but airlines are permitted wide discretion in enforcement. And no one likes angering customers by requiring them to check their bags.
But now, attendants are trying to force the issue, proposing strict government limits on what can be brought aboard.
“With the problem of carry-on bags out of control, we need the FAA to be the enforcer - writing and implementing a consistent, uniform policy providing the means to enforce it across the board,” Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said at a conference on the issue here Thursday.
But Federal Aviation Administration officials argue more regulation is not the answer.
FAA spokesperson Katherine Creedy promised Thursday the agency will issue an advisory that gives specific guidelines on what can be carried aboard. But she emphasized different plane sizes and loads demand flexible standards.
“Say an airline has a half-empty plane going to London. If someone has two carry-on bags, it would be ridiculous to arbitrarily limit him to one bag,” Creedy said.
And, clearly, some passengers have legitimate needs for more carry-on baggage than others. Consider, for instance, the logistical problems of a mother with baby twins.
But flight attendants say that doesn’t excuse the people with giant golf bags, television sets, lawn chairs and even car batteries.
Consumer’s Digest magazine estimated 1,200 passengers are injured by falling bags every year on domestic flights. Injuries range from minor bruises to major neck injuries.
Chiropractor and registered nurse Patricia Connelly suffered two ruptured discs after a bag fell on her during a September 1994 flight from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco.
“I had a great practice of hands-on treatment to hundreds of patients that now I can only perform consultations to,” Connelly said at Thursday’s conference.
Flinging and pushing the bags around is also dangerous for the flight attendants. Former Alaska Airlines flight attendant Rhonda Ruderman said attendants reported 3,711 baggage-related injuries last year. Most happened while attendants were attempting to stuff oversized bags into overhead bins, she said.
Ultimately, enforcement of carry-on standards falls to ticket agents and flight attendants. Ruderman said regulations are so vague they allow customers to push attendants into bending the rules, and she said upsetting the customer can lead to reprimands from superiors.
“(Passengers) know by balking at the rules, they’ll be rewarded with an upgrade” to a better seat, Ruderman said. “The current rules are shifting standards which are difficult to enforce.”
She said not only is there a danger during a normal flight but in a crash or forced landing, carry-on baggage can make evacuating a plane very hard.
“I have actually seen carry-on baggage wheeled onto the wing of a plane during an evacuation,” Ruderman said.
International Transportation Workers’ Federation spokesman Shane Enright urged airlines to use advertising to attempt to change frequent flyers’ attitudes about carrying on as much as possible and make checking bags a viable alternative.
“As long as passengers still think checking bags is a lottery (as to whether bags will be lost), they will continue to carry on too much,” Enright said.
United Airlines will attempt its own cure for the problem starting Dec. 1 in Des Moines, Iowa. Under the program test, customers will pay less for a coach flight if they’re willing to limit their luggage to one carry-on bag with a specific maximum size.
But industry experts believe United might be swimming against the tide. In a survey published by USA Today on Nov. 3, travelers ranked having more carry-on capability an important priority in streamlining air travel.