OUT OF THE BLUE
with carry-on craziness
By Elliott Hester
in a business suit, shoulders bowed by the weight of monster carry-on
bags, he stumbled onto the airplane wearing a jittery smile. He
was a dough-faced man with a cheerful disposition. The last of 150
passengers to board the oversold flight. But after unsuccessful
attempts at stowing his bags, after opening and then shutting one
jam-packed overhead bin after another, Mr. Nice Guy suddenly went
"Damn!" he cried, slamming the bin with a force that spun
passengers in their seats. "Where the hell am I supposed to
put my bags?" This question (posed time and time again on one
crowded flight or another) was directed at me - the enemy. One of
four attendants working the flight.
"Please be patient, sir," I said, politely. "We'll
try to find space for your bags." He stood there, somewhere
between fury and disdain, sweat running down his ruddy cheeks. As
I squeezed past him in the aisle he leaned back and glared at me.
"Be patient?" he said. "You're asking me to be patient?
"You make us wait two hours, and ask me to be patient?"
"Sir, the two-hour flight delay was unavoidable." I said
this while opening yet another full overhead bin, hoping to find
space for his bags. "The inbound flight was delayed because
of downline thunderstorms."
The passenger rolled his eyes and snorted.
searched for space in the coat closets and repositioned passenger
bags in the overhead bins. When those efforts failed, our purser
made a P.A. announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen. If you have
small items in the overhead bin, will you be kind enough to move
them beneath the seat in front of you?" Nobody flinched.
So much for passenger commiseration.
Meanwhile, departure time had come. The gate agent tapped her watch,
signaling the need to close out the flight. I walked up to the irate
passenger and delivered the bad news.
"Sir, we'll have to tag your bags and check them into the cargo
hold. You can pick them up at the luggage carousel upon landing."
"No *#!&*@! way," he said, crossing his arms defiantly.
"I'm allowed two carry-on bags. I have a right to bring these
In this case, the customer is only half right. Passengers are allowed
a maximum of two carry-ons aboard most domestic flights. But airlines
can't guarantee room for the bags should you be among the last to
board the airplane. As more and more passengers purchase roll-aboard
luggage (allowing them to carry added belongings, as well as heavier
items that would normally travel as checked baggage) overhead bins
have reached full capacity.
Herein lies a predicament that pits passengers against flight attendants,
flight attendants against airlines, and airlines against an unforgiving
on-time departure clock. With an antiquated air-traffic control
system plagued by as many as 40,000 delays in a given month, airlines
are more paranoid than ever about on-time departures. As a result,
management puts pressure on flight attendants and gate agents, castigating
those deemed "responsible' for flight delays. Perhaps a thousand
times a day, frustrated employees struggle with equally frustrated
passengers, trying to remove unaccommodated bags so the flight can
depart on time.
I've been cussed at by business travelers, poked by the elderly,
and verbally abused by mommies who refused to part with baby strollers.
I've been snarled at, rebuked, given the finger. While seizing a
bag from a litigious traveler, I was threatened with a million-dollar
This says as much about social diplomacy as it does about overhead
bin space. But no matter how much passengers growl, no matter how
unfair it seems when carry-on baggage is snatched by dutiful employees,
rules is rules. Baggage will be removed if it canšt be stowed safely
in overhead bins, coat closets or under seats. The FAA says so.
The airlines concur. Still, some passengers fight to the death.
The ruddy-faced man on my flight was no exception. After being asked
to surrender his carry-on bags, he flew into a rage. "I've
got eight bottles of expensive wine in one of these bags!"
he said. "I'll be damned if I let you put it in the cargo hold!"
I related the situation to the gate agent who guaranteed the passenger
a seat on the next flight. When he refused, she offered him a possible
"No," he said, defiantly. "I have to get on this
"That's fine, sir,' said the agent. "But you'll have to
check your bags." Still, the passenger refused.
Departure time passed. Passengers squirmed in their seats. One sympathetic
woman looked up at me and smiled. "Surely you ought to be able
to find space for this poor man's bags," she said. "How
difficult can it be?"
"It's not difficult at all," I said. "Not if someone
offers to let us remove their carry-ons in order to accommodate
his. Care to volunteer?" Suddenly devoid of altruism, the woman
arched an eyebrow and fell silent.
Begrudgingly, the man agreed to take the next flight.
There was a catch, however. In addition to two carry-ons, the deposed
passenger was traveling with two pieces of "checked" baggage.
He demanded they be removed from this flight and transferred to
"Your bags will have to travel on this plane, sir," the
agent said. "They'll be waiting for you at your destination."
"They'll be traveling with me to my destination," he insisted.
"No they won't."
"Yes they will."
The battle raged on for what seemed like forever. Norman Schwarzkopf
would have been impressed.
When the man finally capitulated, when passengers and crew prepared
to take off for a three-hour flight that should have been preparing
for landing, the captain's voice crackled over the P.A. system.
"Ahhhh... ladies and gentlemen. Unfortunately... ahhhh, we're
experiencing a mechanical problem. Our mechanics expect to have
the problem fixed in 45 minutes."
Unaccommodated carry-on bags: a speck on the bulging butt of flight