The Brancatelli File



December 10, 1998 -- Fasten your seat belts, fellow travelers. We must leap once more unto the breach of the nation's purported carry-on crisis.

In case you missed it during the crush of Thanksgiving events, Continental sued Delta over the installation of plastic baggage templates at security stations in San Diego International Airport. It also issued a thunderous press release aimed at United concerning its plan to install similar "sizer" templates at security stations in Denver.

After more than a year of lying to us about our luggage and lying about our baggage predilections, the airlines have turned on each other. After branding us as spoiled brats because we have this insane idea that our bags should travel with us, the airlines are now squabbling among each other.

In most cases, I'd dismiss them with a pox on all their houses, but we really do need to address this one more time. So, If you weren't bored to tears--or, perhaps, convinced--after my columns of October 9 and April 24--let's take one more crack at it. And, I promise, we can boil this down to four simple points.

As you can see by the chart below, no two airlines have the same rules about carry-on bags. Yet United and Delta retrofitted public X-ray machines with templates, cut to their particular limitations. If you happen to be a Continental passenger at San Diego, you'd still be forced to meet the Bowery Boys' size limits.

Continental and its passengers were rightly appalled and Continental has gone so far as to post an employee at the San Diego X-ray machines to ensure that the template is lifted for Continental flyers. It has also instituted the lawsuit to force Delta to remove the sizers.

Forget about the ludicrous scene at San Diego right now. While this is the airlines at their comical, idiotic best, there's a much more important issue.

Who the hell gave the airlines the right to use X-ray machines for their private purposes? These machines are placed by the Federal Aviation Administration for security purposes. They are supposed to keep the system safe from contraband material such as guns, explosives and other terrorist tools. Why do airlines decide they can use these crucial public safety devices to enforce their own niggling baggage rules?

In fact, this is a typical airline scam. Virtually alone among American businesses, airlines are exempt from local regulations, local laws and local courts. Theirs is a federally regulated industry and the carriers routinely decide their rules have the power of law. They try to infuse their rules with the presumption of law in the matter of fares, ticketing and, now, carry-on bags.

These power-hungry maniacs have convinced themselves they are the law. We shouldn't let them get away with it.

Continental chose the days before Thanksgiving, the busiest travel period of the year, to make an ostentatious public display of its unhappiness with the templates. In other words, Continental was motivated less by fairness and concern for its passengers than the opportunity to gain some cheap publicity that would make it look like the friend of the frequent flyer.

Why can Continental get away with such shameless self-aggrandizement? Why do all ten of the U.S. major carriers have separate, and conflicting, carry-on rules? Because the FAA won't enforce a single standard. Beyond demanding the airlines have an acceptable carry-on policy, the FAA does nothing, thus allowing each airline to impose its own Babelistic approach to carry-on bags.

It's time for the FAA to step up and promulgate one standard for carry-on bags. Write a rule--a simple, common-sense rule covering the number of carry-on bags allowed and the size permitted--and enforce it. This part of the job needn't be rocket science. We all know what bags look like and what carry-on bins look like. Do the math, guys. Do your job.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: There is no carry-on crisis in this country. If it seems like there are more carry-on bags then ever before, you're probably right. But it's probably not because people are carrying on more bags. It's probably because there are more people flying than ever before, more people flying smaller equipment than ever before and more coach airline seats per aircraft than ever before. Facts and statistics bear out these trends.

But there is no fact--and no extrapolation of fact--to suggest that passengers are trying to carry on more bags than ever before. Think about it: Have you ever seen a statistic or estimate of the average number of carry-on bags per passenger? You have not. No one knows how many bags passengers carry on and no one has ever tracked it.

How dare Southwest call us "bin hogs" without a single fact or statistic to back up the accusation. How dare the flight-attendants union accuse passengers of "spoiled-brat petulance" without any proof whatsoever.

The bottom line on carry-on bags is what the bottom line has always been: People carry on bags because they don't trust the airlines' slow, cumbersome and antiquated checked-bag system.

Between the long wait at check-in counters and the even longer wait at the baggage-claim carousels, checking a bag can add an hour or more to each one-way flight. And, on average, airlines "mishandle" the bags of 4.39 passengers for every 1,000 travelers. That's about one foul up per flight.

The airlines should shut up about carry-on bags until they can put up on checked bags.



Size Limit



10 x 17 x 24"

Size limit is for both bags combined.

America West

not listed

"When space is limited, it may be necessary to limit carry-on bags to one per customer."


9 x 13 x 23"

Total of three checked/carry-on bags permitted. Bags limited to 62, 55 and 45 linear inches.


not listed

Total of three checked/carry-on bags permitted. Bags limited to 62, 55 and 45 linear inches.


9 x 14 x 22"

A purse is exempt. "Restrictions may apply on certain flights."


9 x 14 x 22"

Official carry-on limit is one bag, but exempts purses, briefcases and laptop computers.


10 x 16 x 24"

"Purses of reasonable size" and food for on-board consumption are also permitted.


10 x 16 x 24"

Trans World One passengers allowed three pieces of carry-on luggage.


9 x 14 x 22"

A "small purse" is exempt. "On full flights…you may be asked to check one of your bags."

US Airways*

10 x 16 x 21"
8 x 16 x 24"

"Handbags" are exempt. Carry-on bags "may be restricted due to a lack of space."

Notes: All airlines exempt coats, canes, umbrellas and reading materials. Some also exempt child seats and baby strollers. Most also restrict a carry-on bag to 45 linear inches (length + height + width). *US Airways limits each bag to separate sizes. Source: Web sites of listed airlines

This column originally appeared at

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