The Brancatelli File



December 31, 1998 -- When Walter Schild flew from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City on Delta Air Lines recently, the airline didn't carp about his two carry-on bags: a garment bag and a laptop-computer case.

When he arrived in Salt Lake, however, the mood changed.

At the boarding area for his connecting flight to Minneapolis, a Delta gate agent claimed Schild's garment bag was too large and should be checked. "I told her that I just took it on my previous flight," Schild recalled. "Why was it okay for Delta in Los Angeles, but not okay for Delta in Salt Lake City?"

Understandably confused, the frequent-flying computer executive challenged the agent. "I even put the bag in the 'size-wize' bin to show her that it fit, but she told me I had forced it in," Schild said. "She said the bag didn't 'easily' fit into the sizer and must be checked. She told me she would call security if I didn't."

Schild's skirmish in Salt Lake City nicely illustrates the war raging between passengers intent on carrying on as many bags as possible and airlines determined to lighten their in-flight loads. Airlines almost always prevail--after all, they write the carry-on rules and are free to change them on a whim--but there are some ways that average passengers can win an occasional battle.

First of all, accept the fact that two bags are now the absolute maximum you can carry onto a domestic coach flight. A few airlines permit a small additional item such as a purse--Southwest, which doesn't serve in-flight meals, even allows a bag of food--but exceptions to the two-bag limit are few and far between.

In fact, as Schild learned in Salt Lake City, some airlines specifically empower employees to reduce the carry-on limit on a flight-by-flight basis. During hectic holiday seasons and other times of heavy traffic, be prepared to travel with less. And don't expect to win an appeal: The airlines answer to no one when it comes to carry-on policies.

However, the smaller the size of the bags you attempt to carry on, the better the chance that you'll be permitted to take them aboard. Seven of the nation's ten major carriers post size limits for carry-on bags--an eighth, United, says bags must be of "reasonable" size--and the dimensions are smaller than you think. At TWA and Southwest, for example, each carry-on bag can be no larger than 10 x 16 x 24 inches. At Alaska Airlines, however, the size limit of 10 x 17 x 24 inches is a combined measurement for both bags. And US Airways posts separate sizes for the first and second pieces of carry-on luggage.

Your choice of bag is also crucial. Hard-sided cases protect clothing better, but soft-sided bags are more flexible. That makes them easier to squeeze into a tight spot inside an overhead bin or under a particularly shallow area under a seat. But beware: Gate agents and flight attendants now pay more attention to oversized duffel bags and monstrously overstuffed garment bags. A slightly bulging soft-sided bag may successfully skirt the carry-on restrictions, but obviously outsized soft bags are easier to spot.

And pay particular attention to dimensions when you shop for those popular rolling cases with telescoping handles. The bag style was created by a pilot specifically with airline carry-on restrictions in mind, but you can no longer assume that every rolling bag with a handle is sized for carry-on use. Take a measuring tape when you shop for a piece of rolling luggage. Measure every bag before you buy it.

Smart travelers also check with a travel agent or on-line booking service before packing. Why? The agent or booking service knows the type of equipment assigned to your flight and carry-on space varies from aircraft to aircraft.

Generally speaking, smaller, single-aisle jets such as Boeing 737 series aircraft offer the least carry-on space. That's because overhead bins are small and also because the planes, configured for six-across seating, have the highest ratio of passengers to available carry-on space. Single-aisle jets such as planes in the DC-9 or MD-80 series offer more carry-on room per passenger because there are only five seats per row.

Among wide-body "jumbo" jets with two aisles, most configurations of the Boeing 747 have more--and more spacious--overhead bins than the DC-10 and its 1990s derivative, the MD-11. Boeing 767s fall somewhere in between. Passengers rave about the spacious, new Boeing 777, but that plane is rarely used on domestic routes.

One final tip: Although it is the least comfortable for passengers, the center seat in coach almost always offers the most spacious under-seat storage area. On an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-200, for example, the storage space under an aisle seat measure 11 inches high, 11 inches wide and 24 inches deep. But the center seat offers under-seat storage that measures 11 by 19.5 by 24 inches.

If all else fails, consider checking your bag, which isn't a bad strategy on a nonstop flight. Airlines rarely lose bags on nonstop journeys. It's when you travel on an itinerary that requires a change of plane at one of the airlines' frenetic hub cities that checked bags most frequently go astray.

Although airlines enforce it only sporadically, rules limit coach passengers to a total of three free bags on a domestic flight. If you carry on two bags, you're technically permitted to check only one piece of luggage. Airlines may attempt to charge you $50 for each additional piece of checked luggage ... Decrease the chance of your checked bag getting lost: Double check the three-letter airport code the airline slaps on your luggage. If you're headed to New York's LaGuardia Airport (code: LGA), but the ticket agent inadvertently tags you bag "LGW," it's going to Gatwick Airport near London, England. ... If an airline loses your checked bags, airlines claim their maximum liability is $1,250 on domestic flights. Internationally, they claim the liability is a maximum of $640 per bag.

This column originally appeared at The Basics magazine.

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