United Airlines recently announced an apparent change in their carry-on policy for bags. New bag sizers are already appearing at UA ticket counters and gates and will extend throughout their network by the end of this year. The new sizers now have two compartments, one each for carry-on luggage and a second sizer for what is still called a “personal item.” The larger carry-on size remains the same at 9” x 14” x 22”. The personal item sizer is limited to 9” x 10” x 17”.
While the sizers seem to make the maximum carry-on dimensions clear, United offers an exception. Carry-on luggage may not exceed a linear size of 45” while the limit for a personal item is 36”. In other words, a thick personal item exceeding 9” would still be acceptable as long as it, along with the height and width, does not exceed the 36” linear requirement. Some backpacks and laptop bags are good examples that may be too thick for the sizer but nevertheless may fit – albeit not comfortably – under a seat.
While that is UA’s published website policy, their Contract of Carriage says something different. On page 22, they add a caveat: Carry-on baggage may not be longer than 22” in any direction while the personal item may not be more than 17”. This rule eliminates many carry-on items that have previously been accepted. Think garment bags and some musical instruments.
Maybe the biggest problem with the bag sizers is that not all aircraft offer the same size overhead bins. Most carry-on luggage, for example, is too large for regional jets bins even though they fit comfortably in the sizer. Also, some mainline aircraft have comparatively smaller bins so not all of them fit in wheels or handle first. On the other hand, there could be instances where passengers have carry-on bags that may fit on the aircraft even though it doesn’t fit in the sizer. Some larger aircraft like a 777 bin may be big enough to fit a child.
This begs some questions. If a bag does not fit the sizer, will it need to be measured to see if the linear rule applies? Perhaps. Or just imagine the gate circus when an agent asks a passenger to place a questionable size bag in the sizer. It fits in barely but is so tight, the bag gets stuck. Will everyone be delayed because of this fiasco? Possibly. Or maybe everyone else goes past and by the time the hapless passenger finally removes their bag from the sizer, there is no more overhead space. (My bag looks pregnant on some trips, so I’ll probably be the hapless passenger!)
And of course there will be the passengers who scream, “I have carried this on tons of times and never had a problem. I know it fits!”
Another problem is luggage manufacturers. More than a few advertise their 22” bags as carry-on friendly or compliant. Yes, their bags are 22” but they know that the true measurement from the top of the handle to the bottom of the wheels is closer to 24”. This will no doubt lead to more angst from passengers and hopefully more responsible advertising from luggage designers.
While the sizers are appearing at check-in counters, many passengers avoid this stop because they have no bags to check. Check-in agents tell me that most passengers just ignore the sizers. These bags will pass through security and get all the way to the gate, only to learn at that time that they may be too large. Some airlines now offer passengers free gate checking of bags to reduce the boarding delays and make room for others. Will United offer this for oversized bags?
No doubt the gate agents are not looking forward to adding another task to their list. Since their goal is to get aircraft boarded on time, this additional layer of responsibility and stress may actually add more time to the boarding process. Kind of ironic when you think about it: Just as flight attendants are losing their police role to insure passengers turn off all electronic devices, gate agents will now have a new role to police the carry-on size.
If these sizers are going to be enforced, United would do well to notify everyone before their reservations are made, and again at check-in and the ticket counter. Having a surprise sizing at the gate will lead to predictable anger from passengers.
Is one-size-fits-all a good policy? Arguably more important, will it be enforced uniformly by hurried gate agents? Will United’s elite status flyers be subjected to the same rules? Perhaps most important, will this policy be adopted by the other legacy carriers?