October 9, 1998 -- Have you heard it? The eerie, almost mournful silence emanating from airline corporate offices and flight-attendant union halls around the nation?
It's the sound of gums not flapping and creaky mental gears not grinding. It's the sound of airline executives and flight attendants not whining about carry-on bags.
After almost a year of bitching and moaning about overstuffed carry-on bins, after almost a year of lecturing us about our evil ways and oversized hand baggage, after almost a year of tightening unenforceable rules that no one understands, the airlines and the flight attendants have finally shut their yaps.
Now that they've hectored and cajoled and bullied us into checking more luggage and carrying on less, the inevitable has happened: The airline baggage system is breaking down.
It's all quiet on the carry-on baggage front because the airlines and the flight attendants can't claim victory. They may have "modified" our carry-on behavior a bit, but the cost of winning this war has been ferocious. The airline baggage system, never a stellar performer in the first place, is groaning under the weight of the increased number of checked bags. Carry-on bins are still stuffed to the gills. And the airlines can't even claim to have increased their on-time flight performance, a side benefit they promised when they tightened the carry-on screws.
The deterioration in the performance of the airline's checked baggage system is easy enough to track by the numbers. Surf over to the Department of Transportation Web Site and check the Air Travel Consumer Report.
For the first six months of 1998, the ten major airlines recorded 5.21 reports of mishandled baggage per 1,000 passengers, a 4.6 percent increase over the same period in 1997. For the last three months that the DOT has released statistics, the mishandled baggage rate has increased by 3.7 percent (August), 5.6 percent (July), and 18.5 percent (June).
But the statistics only tell us how many more bags have been lost. They don't tell us about all the attendant inconvenience.
One airport manager I spoke to last week believes passengers now spend twice as much time at the baggage carousels as they did a year ago. "The waiting time has zoomed," he said. "We're trying to track it. I think it's taking more than an hour now to get [all the bags off] a fully loaded" widebody jet.
Another airport manager called his baggage-claim area "a bazaar. I see people milling and waiting and peering up the belts and then I come back 20 minutes later an they are still milling and waiting and looking up the belts."
And there are the horrendous waits at the airport ticket and check-in counters. With more people traveling and more of those people being forced to check bags, the lines are often unmanageable. One airline station chief I hectored last month finally admitted that the carrier's internal studies show waiting times at his airport are, on average, 22 minutes longer than a year ago.
What's most infuriating about this situation is that it is the "solution" to a problem that never existed. There isn't now, and wasn't then, a carry-on crisis.
Think about it. For all the blather about luggage during the last year, you never once were presented with any hard evidence that travelers were attempting to carry on more or larger bags. There is no fact and no extrapolation of fact any airline can present that shows passengers were carrying on more bags.
As always, the truth of the matter lies not in ourselves, but in our carriers. If overhead bins are stuffed and carry-on space is at a premium, it isn't because we are carrying on more bags. It is because the airlines changed the geography.
While passenger traffic exploded over the last five years, the airlines "down-gauged" their fleets, substituting 757s for widebody aircraft on long-haul routes and putting 737s into service on shorter routes once flown by more spacious narrow-body jets. In other words, they stuffed more passengers onto smaller planes. To make matters worse, the airlines reconfigured those smaller jets to accommodate even more passengers by ripping out the closets and other storage areas once dedicated to carry-on bags.
Rather than admit those facts to passengers, the airlines invented a carry-on crisis. Rather than own up to the fact that they were accommodating more passengers than ever before in smaller planes than ever before, airlines invented the fiction that travelers were suddenly carrying on too many bags.
Keep all this in mind the next time you wait an hour to check a bag or spend two hours at the airport luggage office filling out the paperwork for a checked bag that your airline "mishandled."This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.