The Brancatelli File



December 2, 1997 -- As we go slip-sliding into 1998, it is apparent that the media thinks Americans have two things to fear besides fear itself: Saddam Hussein and carry-on luggage.

If you've been anywhere near a radio, television or newsstand lately, you know what I'm talking about. My media comrades seem obsessed with the tinpot dictator of Iraq and our alleged affinity for carrying too many bags on board.

To be scrupulously accurate, Saddam is getting a little more "play," the term we media types use for shamelessly beating a story into the ground. Iraq stories are even getting snappy little logos that say things like "Crisis in Iraq" and "Showdown with Saddam." And whenever we resort to slugging stories with logos, you know we are serious about telling you more than you ever wanted to know.

But considering that there is virtually no news to report about carry-on bags, the topic has been getting Iraq-like coverage lately. All the wire services and major newspapers have written stories. CNN, MSNBC and the network news operations have chimed in. And if one more all-news radio station calls to interview me about the "carry-on bag crisis," I'm gonna scream.

The thrust of all these stories: Carry-on bags are bad, we carry on too many of them and the airlines are cracking down. Or, to quote from the syndicated column of Ed Perkins, the usually level-headed editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter: "Why do travelers abuse carry-on? Those travelers are, in effect, saying to other travelers, 'My time is worth more than your time' or even 'My baggage is worth more than your life.' "

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. And, Ed, please, come back to us.

All this editorial frothing at the mouth is in response to the following factoids:

+ On December 1, United began testing a one-bag carry-on rule for low-fare passengers on flights out of Des Moines.

+ On November 21, Northwest claims it began universal enforcement of what it calls a "one-plus" rule: one carry-on bag plus a briefcase, laptop computer or purse.

+ On November 13, the Association of Flight Attendants convened a conference on carry-on bags.

+ On November 12, American Airlines asked the Federal Aviation Administration to impose uniform carry-on rules on all airlines and suggested the limit be two bags.

I'm sure you've already realized that neither the American nor the Northwest moves are a "crack down." Two bags have always been the generally accepted rule of thumb for carry-ons. So American's request for an FAA-mandated two-bag rule would merely codify the status quo. And Northwest's one-plus rule is merely repackaging the status quo. Call them whatever you want, but two bags are two bags and that's what Northwest allows.

As for United's test, I don't like it much, but I don't expect it to last long, either. Why? Because the rule requires ticket-counter clerks, gate agents and flight attendants to check the number of bags a passenger carries against the price of their ticket. It's impractical, it's time consuming and it won't work.

Which leaves the flight attendants' conference. They spent hours telling us that sometimes people do stupid things with carry-on bags. Well, duh! The one real bit of news from the symposium? Flight attendants, who always complain that passengers treat them like waitresses instead of the in-flight safety experts they are, say they shouldn't be required to make safety decisions about carry-on bags.

So that brings us to the nub of this non-crisis: the concept that carry-on bags are somehow bad in theory and that travelers carry on too many in practice.

You and I know better. The problem here isn't the theory or practice of carry-on bags. The problem is the airlines' proven inability to deal with checked bags. No sane person would carry on bags if they trusted the airlines not to screw up the checked-bag process.

For starters, carriers still mishandle far too many checked bags. During the first nine months of this year, according to Department of Transportation statistics, there were 4.88 reports of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. That's roughly one incident of lost baggage for every 200 passengers. Or, to put it another way, that's almost one case of mishandled bags per narrow-body jet flight and more than one incident per wide-body jet flight.

Then there is the matter of time. During normal business-travel hours, I estimate that checking bags adds roughly an hour to the average one-way itinerary. That includes the wait at the ticket counter to check your bags, the circuitous schlep to baggage return and the wait at the baggage carousel to retrieve your luggage. The process takes less time at small airports, more time at the hubs and fluctuates from season to season, but, generally, checking and retrieving a bag takes an hour.

Finally, there's the claim that piggish passengers now carry on too many bags. Every story you've seen, heard or read lately makes the claim.

I say: Prove it.

There is no fact, and no extrapolation of fact, to support the assertion that travelers are carrying on more bags. I called dozens of airlines and airline experts last week. Not one even had a reliable estimate of the average number of bags a passenger carries on. If we don't know how many bags a passenger carries on, how can anyone claim the number has increased?

What has confused my media friends is the shifting patterns of commercial air traffic in this country. More passengers are flying than ever before, but the airlines downgraded to turboprops and smaller jets on many routes during the retrenchment of the early 1990s. To compensate for this lack of larger aircraft, the carriers are wedging more seats into every plane.

Do the math: More passengers, smaller planes and more seats per aircraft adds up to more carry-on bags and less carry-on space per passenger. Not arrogant, abusive travelers thoughtlessly carrying on more luggage.

Now, can we please go back to fearing Saddam Hussein and fear itself?

A follow-up to our recent column on Apple: On November 24, a class-action suit was filed in Orange County, California, alleging that Apple engaged in unfair business practices. On the same day, Apple posted a revised tech support document on its Web site. Although it seems to reinstate live free telephone tech support for the customers who purchased that service with their machines, more than a dozen users who contacted the appropriate toll-free number (800-SOS-APPL) at my request were nevertheless denied free access to an Apple techie.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.