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 passengers’ 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 bulkier bags 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.
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 Inc.
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.”
Business travelers, for example, avoid an airline that doesn’t have room for their carry-ons.
It might seem like airlines risk giving away fees if more people can fit carry-ons on board. But airlines often waive bag fees when luggage can’t fit overhead and must be checked at the gate. And business travelers, who generate most of the industry’s revenue, are often exempt from baggage fees.
Airlines expanding their bins include:
• United: The airline is replacing bin doors on 152 planes starting in April. The new doors curve out more than the old ones. That allows passengers to slide bags into the compartment wheels-first instead of sideways. The renovated bins will be on all of United’s Airbus A320s, one of the main jets the airline uses for domestic flying. The planes will hold 106 typical roll-on bags, up from 64.
• American Airlines: The airline’s new 737s will hold 48 more bags than the planes they are replacing, although they have 24 more seats, too. American’s older 737s are also getting new baggage-bin doors that curve out more. The work is finished on about half of the 76 planes.
• Delta Air Lines: Passengers on international routes like Atlanta-Paris or Minneapolis-Amsterdam are starting to see new bins on the airline’s 767 jets. The compartments hold 26 more bags than the bins they are replacing, an increase of 23 percent.
• US Airways Group Inc.: In 2008, it enlarged bins on its 757s, a midsize plane flown on routes including Phoenix to Hawaii and Charlotte, N.C., to Dublin. Like United, the change allowed fliers to slide bags in wheels-first instead of sideways.
Boeing is engineering its bins to be a better fit for a standard 9-by-14-by-22-inch roll-aboard bag. That’s a change from the past. Designers used to focus on maximizing cubic inches, producing impressive-sounding space. But it wasn’t necessarily a good fit for actual carry-on luggage, says Kent Craver, Boeing’s cabin expert.
“We never used to talk about how many bags would fit. We talked about volume,” he says.
In designing bins on its new 787, Boeing dispatched workers 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,” Craver said.