New carry-on size limits causing problems for some air travelers this summer

Copyright © 2011 Kathryn Greenhill

Last week, a friend of mine found out about United’s new carry-on size limits the hard way: he was asked to put the carry-on bag he had used for the last five years in United’s “sizer.” Then, because it was about an inch too wide, he had to run back to the ticket counter to check it in. He barely satisfied the requirement to check in luggage at least 45 minutes before departure.

A few weeks ago, after a decade of airline baggage handling abuse, my wife and I decided it was time to get the latest tough, lightweight, four-wheel luggage for our travel. I checked the carry-on regulations of several airlines to be sure our luggage would meet the airlines’ size limits. I was caught by surprise when I learned that my primary airline, American, had quietly changed its carry-on luggage rules.

At the American Airlines website, it first appeared as though the carry-on size limit was unchanged, as it said carry-on bags can’t, “…exceed overall dimensions of 45 inches (length + width + height).”

When I read on, the surprising major change in American’s carry-on size limitation stood out like a sore thumb.

“The maximum dimensions cannot exceed any of the following measurements: 22″ long x 14″ wide x 9″ tall or 115 cm (56 x 36 x 23 cm).”

Each dimension now has an individual limit and, unfortunately for many travelers, a significant number of roller carry-ons today are 15″ (38 cm) wide or slightly wider. Those carry-on bags no longer meet American’s size limit, or United’s, which has adopted the same limits.

Besides the new size limits, from what I’ve seen in the last couple of months, American and United, plus some other US domestic airlines, are increasing their carry-on rule enforcement at some airports. American and United have begun to use their carry-on “sizer” again.

If you’re flying American or United, that means your 15”-wide carry-on might be required to be checked luggage. If an airline decides to subject your carry-on to their “sizer,” remember, they require your bag get through it without being forced. They won’t let you take it into the plane’s cabin if you can barely “inch” it through the “sizer.”

Travelers on US domestic flights are permitted to take both a carry-on bag and a personal item into the plane’s cabin. The carry-on bag is well defined by the airlines, but not the personal item. Airlines merely describe it as a purse, briefcase, laptop bag or tote. The airlines do say it must fit under the seat in front of each passenger. That description can characterize bags of substantial size, and gives gate agents and flight crew too much discretion about what they can allow or disallow.

I’d like to give kudos to United Airlines for now making it clear on their website what their limits are for personal items, by setting dimensional limits everyone can understand.

United states, “The maximum dimensions for your personal item, such as a shoulder bag, backpack, laptop bag or other small item, are 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm).”

It appears that the rules and enforcement of carry-on luggage limits for US domestic airlines are in a state of flux. Therefore, I strongly suggest you check your airlines’ baggage rules to make sure your luggage conforms to them. That way you won’t be caught like my friend and others. With the largest and third largest US domestic airlines adopting new, more restrictive carry-on rules, it stands to reason other airlines may follow their lead.

Before purchasing new luggage, check any airline you think you might fly during the life of your new bags to determine what their maximum size can be. That way you’ll eliminate the problems and expenses of oversize luggage. Don’t take the word of luggage manufacturers that their bags meet all domestic and/or international standards. Make the determination yourself.

Don’t expect the airlines to notify you about their luggage rule changes. The onus, as usual, is on the passenger. American, United and the other airlines generally spell out their luggage rules and regulations for both checked and carry-on luggage in detail. It is definitely worth reading the airlines’ luggage rules. Knowing them can eliminate hassles, problems and expensive fees at the airport.

Does your carry-on bag meet American and United's new size limit?

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  • Steven Runyon

    Perhaps people need to have some personal responsibility for god sake. Check your airlines carry on bag dimensions than go to the store and make sure it will fit.Not to hard to do. People are always quick to blame someone else for their problem.

  • jim6555

    There is also corporate responsibility involved. When a manufacturer labels a bag as being 21.5″ long, any reasonable person would assume that the length is 21.5 inches. Consumer Reports recently published an article about how some well known luggage manufacturers understate the dimensions of their products so that people will purchase them assuming that the bags will fit into an overhead bin. It is only when they board an aircraft that they find out that the product is longer or wider than the stated dimensions.