Who Does the Overhead Bin Space Belong To, Anyway?

Before 9/11 it was common for airlines to allow two full-sized carry on bags onboard and that didn’t even count your personal item. Planes weren’t as full, and airlines didn’t charge for checked bags, so most customers didn’t do that and it was generally possible to find space in the overhead bins.

However two things changed that:

  • The TSA happened, and to speed up security checkpoints limits were placed on carry on bags. More bags carried on means more bags going through the checkpoint, and more work for screeners.

  • Checked baggage fees happened, starting with American Airlines in 2008. Customers who used to check even the one bag they’d be bringing with them stopped doing that because it was cheaper not to check.
  • Since then there’s been a race for bin space, which is unfortunate from my perspective because it means if you want to ensure you have space (especially space near your seat) and don’t have to gate check (if all the space is gone) you have to board early.

    That’s good for airlines who want everyone in their seats and ready to go, less so for passengers who might grab a bite to eat in the airport or send that last email from the lounge.

    For years customers in economy have stowed their bags wherever they’ve been able to find space. And that’s been acceptable because there are no clear norms and no enforced rules over who overhead bin space belongs to.

    That’s changing.. sort of. First Delta and now American label their bins with a respective cabin, suggesting that only passengers in those seats should use those bins. That discourages some people from stuffing their belongings in the overhead as they walk by on their way to the rear of the aircraft, but it doesn’t work with everyone.

    Here are (6) principles for carry on bags that I think are true.

    • When everyone is on board, remaining space belongs to everyone. It would be stupid to require a passenger to gate check a bag because there’s no space left in ‘their section’ of the aircraft but open space up front.

      If a passenger is entitled to use bin space in their ticketed cabin, and coach passengers should walk back to coach and hunt and peck there, surely this changes at some point during the boarding process. If you’re in the last minutes of boarding can’t you take any space at all?

    • A boarding pass is a license to hunt. While everyone except Basic Economy passengers on United and on some (other) ultra low cost carriers are entitled to bring a carry on bag onto the plane, there’s generally not enough space for everyone to actually do that. And since there’s not enough room for everyone to have space above their seat, there’s no entitlement to the space directly above your seat.

    • It’s not ok to take bin space above the bulkhead if you aren’t seated there. Those seats generally don’t have floor storage so passengers into those seats have to stow not just a carry on but also their personal item up there as well.

    • Unwritten rules sadly aren’t enforceable. American Airlines says 87% of customers fly at most once a year. If there are unwritten rules, how are those customers supposed to know them? And if they aren’t required to follow unwritten rules, no one else can be either.

    • There’s an information problem. Passengers boarding the plane don’t know what bin space has already been taken or what’s left. Closed bins might be a signal, or the bins might just be closed.

    • Coach passengers taking first class bin space slows down deplaning. Coach passengers with bags up front don’t delay deplaning much. First class passengers who have to put their bags farther back have to fight their way back into the cabin on landing to get their cabin baggage. Deplaning speed suggests passengers should use space nearest to them, and taking space in front of your row means someone else has to move backwards on landing. Wouldn’t Kant say this is a categorical imperative?

    • Be sure you aren’t last to board. If someone is going to have to gate check a bag you don’t want it to be you.

    This tells me that no matter what signs airlines put on bins, there’s going to be some deviation and airlines aren’t asking flight attendants to enforce the signs. First class bins should be for first class passengers first but the end goal should be getting as many carry on bags on the plane as possible.

    Ultimately this is a war of all against all, and you have to take care of yourself, the best way to do that is to race the boarding gate and get on as soon as your boarding group is called.

    The only real solution of course is bigger overhead bins. Alaska was first out with these new Boeing bins, American Airlines has put them into most narrowbody aircraft avia their ‘Project Oasis’ retrofit that takes out seat back entertainment and uses uncomfortable slimline seats to squeeze passengers closer together. United has said they’ll do bigger bins too.

    The two changes are linked, of course, it’s entirely possible to put in more bins without also squeezing seats closer together, unless the ultimate goal is to use those bigger bins to carry more passengers.

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