The Brancatelli File



April 24, 1998 -- The airlines are never so obviously deceitful and transparently arrogant as when they blame us for a problem they created and continue to exacerbate.

I refer, of course, to this carrying on about carry-on bags. Anyone who takes a few moments to look at the facts--or, often, the conspicuous lack of them--will surely conclude that the airlines are being their usual disorganized, inscrutable selves. And rather than admit they created the problem and don't know how to fix it, the airlines opine about how they must crack down on carry-on bags for our own good.

Let me take you through the facts in a format so simple that even the simpletons at the major airlines can understand it.

Question: Why do travelers carry-on bags?

Answer: Because airlines do a lousy job handling checked luggage.

In January, for example, the Transportation Department recorded 6.04 reports of "mishandled baggage" per 1,000 passengers. On a wide-body flight of about 300 passengers, that means almost two flyers have their checked bags lost or temporarily misdirected. On a narrow-body flight with about 150 passengers, about one flyer will have a baggage problem.

Now while those odds sound good, no business traveler wants to be the person attending an important customer meeting in jeans and sneakers because he or she was the unlucky sap whose luggage was "mishandled." And who wants to show up at a sales pitch without the pitch and whimper to the client that "the airlines ate my homework."

Then there's the matter of time required to check and retrieve luggage. Let's assume the bare minimum: That you bump your check-in time back 30 minutes so the airlines can process your bag and that you wait at your arrival airport for 30 minutes for your bag to come off the carousel. That's an added hour for each flight. What do you bill for an hour of time? Has any airline offered to compensate you for that hour?

Question: What are the government regulations concerning carry-on bags?

Answer: There aren't any, at least concerning the number and size of bags a passenger may carry on. The government permits each airline to make its own determination.

Question: What are the airlines' rules about the number and size of carry-on bags?

Answer: Not even the airlines know.

Want a perfect example of how screwed up the carriers are when it comes to carry-on rules? When Delta announced on April 9 that it was changing its rules for carry-on bags effective April 15, it had to issue two press releases. Why? The first release gave the wrong dimensions for Size Wise, Delta's proprietary, at-the-gate sizer boxes.

If the airlines don't know their own rules, how can they expect us to know? We can't, of course, and that allows the airlines to tell us it's our fault no matter what we do.

Question: Aren't travelers attempting to carry on an increasing number of bags?

Answer: This may surprise you, but probably not.

Despite all the wailing and caterwauling, there is no fact and no extrapolation of fact to prove that travelers are carrying on more bags. No airline has ever produced a survey, a research report or any data at all about the number of bags that passengers carry on. The bottom line is startling simple: Airlines don't know how many bags per customer are being carried on, so they have no way of knowing if the number of carry-on bags per traveler has increased.

Question: Aren't overhead bins more crowded than ever and doesn't that prove that travelers are carrying on more bags?

Answer: No.

While it is true that overhead bins are more crowded, that probably has nothing to do with that unproved supposition that travelers are carrying on more bags. The more likely causes of crowded bins: The substantial increase in the number of passengers per flight, the airlines' downgrading to smaller aircraft with less overhead space on many key routes, and the airlines' decision to remove coat closets and other storage spaces from many planes.

Now, for the biggest question of all: Do we have a carry-on crisis?

Let's assume that we do. Here is a simple, easy-to-implement solution. An every-airline, every-seat, every-flight rule that says this: A passenger may carry on a coat, hat and two carry-on bags, each of which cannot exceed 22x14x10 inches.

No exceptions for purses, duty-free purchases, laptop computers, roller blades, skis, make-up kits, pet carriers, food baskets or anything else. Two bags. Period.

I challenge the airline industry to get together with the government. Pass a rule: Just two bags.

But such clarity will never be embraced. Why? Because if airlines promulgate easily understood, easily enforced carry-on rules, they will be pressed to handle checked luggage better. That would require them to think creatively and, perhaps, spend a few bucks. That's something the airlines are loathe to do.

So don't expect carry-on clarity any time soon. It's easier and cheaper for the airlines to fritter and flutter and fumble and flummox--and then blame us.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.