Why don’t airlines enforce their carry-on baggage rules?

Brian Jackson/Shutterstock

You’re used to seeing Ned Levi’s column here on Monday, but today it gets a new name: Getting Around. Ned will explore the rules, regulations and policies that make travel better — and worse — and will offer his expert insights into having a better trip.

All the airlines have policies limiting carry-on baggage size. Unfortunately, far too many airlines don’t enforce the limits at all, while other airlines seriously enforce carry-on limits which, in my opinion, are far too restrictive.

Considering the rough way baggage is often handled by airlines, and the amount of luggage delayed, lost or damaged, the need for certain items to be carried in carry-on baggage is significant. Valuables, breakables, medications, a change of clothes, and toiletries, in my opinion, are essential to be packed in carry-on baggage for any air traveler.

In the US, for example, passengers are allowed a full-sized carry-on and a personal item. No bag can exceed a total linear length of more than 45 inches (115 cm) and a weight of 40 pounds (18kg).

I typically use a roller carry-on, plus a medium backpack which can fit under the seat in front of me. Both meet those specifications. There are more than a few airlines outside the US, such as LAN in South America, which limit carry-ons to just 17 pounds (8kg). My bags typically weigh more than that.

Two questions immediately come to my mind. First, do air passengers need oversize carry-on baggage to carry their essential items? In my opinion, the answer is generally no, as long as passengers are allowed one full-size carry-on, and a reasonably sized personal item, but based on their behavior, many passengers don’t agree.

Second, do air passengers need overweight carry-on baggage to carry their essentials? In my opinion, the answer is sometimes we do. Some airlines, even though flying full-size planes, have unnecessarily restrictive weight limits which make carrying all essentials impossible.

I’ve seen passengers carry large duffels into plane cabins, roller carry-ons which barely fit in the overhead bin sideways (forget straight in), and others with more than two carry-ons. Due to the oversize and extra bags brought on board by passengers, I’ve seen other passengers told to gate check their carry-ons, because the overhead bins were already filled, with fewer than ¾ of the flight’s passengers already on board. Many of those large bags are hard to handle and difficult to stuff in the overhead bin. Too often, “shoe-horning” carry-ons in the overhead bin waste lots of time, slows boarding, and delays flights from leaving the gate.

Unnecessarily restrictive weight limits can force passengers to pack belongings into their checked luggage which should be in their carry-ons. I have personally seen this lead to passengers retrieving their luggage from the carousel only to find cameras and laptop computers, etc., missing or broken. I understand highly restrictive weight limits on small propeller driven aircraft, but not on full-size commercial jets.

The airlines need to enforce their size limitations and have reasonable weight restrictions to ensure all passengers can bring their carry-ons on board, not just the ones boarding first. If that happens, passengers will stop flaunting the rules.

Airlines with unnecessarily restrictive weight limitations need to change them to allow passengers to bring their important valuables, breakables, and other essentials in their carry-ons.

If you’re stymied by unnecessarily restrictive carry-on weight limits on your flight, I suggest you join me in using a photographer’s vest to act as your extra carry-on, and stuff its many pockets with your other items, then put it in the overhead bin after boarding for your comfort.

Do airlines enforce their carry-on baggage rules sufficiently?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...
  • Jose

    I disagree that so much stuff has to be carried onboard. Too many people simply don’t want to check anything. That’s not fair to the rest of the passengers that just want a true carry-on. True “essentials” should fit within the reasonable size/weight limit. If yours doesn’t, maybe you need to reevaluate what you’re packing. Consider shipping oversized items, packed as “fragile”, and covered by insurance. Be considerate of the rest of the plane that has to stand in line while you try to accommodate way too much stuff overhead or under your seat. If you’re concerned about lost luggage, either ship your belongings or don’t pack things you can’t afford to lose! For the VAST majority of travelers, a laptop, a camera, and medications can fit into one bag and most likely will fit under the seat in front of you. Don’t be a selfish traveler. I would love to see airlines enforce the carry-on rules.

  • NedLevi

    I agree. If a passenger brings two carry-ons on their flight, it’s unfair if neither will fit under the seat in front of them. My camera backpack will even fit under the aisle seats of regional jets, on the two seat side, and the small ones which are just 3 seats per row.

  • Mike313

    I fly about 200,000 miles annually world-wide and never ever check my baggage, unless forced to do so by stringent baggage regulations. I’ve learned that that there are laundries wherever I travel, and this has cut down my baggage to one wheelie suitcase that meets the regulations (for personal stuff) and one back pack for business stuff. The only two airlines that routinely give me grief about the bags I carry, are Lufthansa and their affiliates such as Austrian (when flying anywhere but to/from the USA) and South African (except when flying an intercontinental flight) – both of whom rigorous enforce the 7kg limit – even to the point of weighing baggage prior to being allowed to check-in, and/or at the gate, or both.

  • NedLevi

    Mike that is a problem on some of the European and African airlines. It really galls me when the airlines limit carry-on luggage to 7kg on full size plane like an A321 or B737, for example. There is no legitimate reason for that limitation.

    I routinely have about 40 pounds (18Kg) of camera gear with me while traveling, and none can go in checked luggage. It won’t survive, and more important, if it’s lost, I can’t work. (I do often send some gear ahead by UPS or FedEx, that’s really heavy, or won’t fit into my medium sized backpack.) I have had to arrange well in advance and pay extra to have my gear with me. Flying to Ushuaia on LAN I had this problem.

    As I mentioned in the article, I use my “photographer’s vest” as an extra carry-on bag as necessary, to reduce weight in my carry-on bags. I’ve seen many others doing the same, and once on the plane, they reload their carry-on with the gear in their vest for the flight. It’s almost become a game, played out daily. The airlines need to rethink excessively restrictive weight limits for carry-on luggage.

  • AirlineEmployee

    I voted yes. As an airline employee it is not a case of airlines not enforcing. Passengers give us an incredibly hard time, both at the ticket counter (those that have not checked in at home and sail through security with their oversized, overstuffed “carryons”). The TSA doesn’t care and it’s not their problem anyway.
    People will argue to the hilt that their bag is a carryon when clearly it is not. I’ve seen passengers try to force /cram/ stuff their bag into the sizer (all the while it does not fit) and still argue the point. “Elite” passengers are the worst. They think by virtue of their status that they can break every rule in the book. Stop giving me your hard-sided garment bag 36 inches wide and yelling/ arguing that it is a carryon !
    I know of one airline that now staff the gates with more personnel to gate check bags – tag them in the waiting area, on the jet bridge and also place employees (other than flight attendants doing this) on the plane predeparture to help people stow their bags properly.
    It’s not the airlines, it’s stubborn passengers.
    And, I disagree with your point about passengers being somewhat “forced” to check their bags with personal items in them (cameras, laptops). Those are precisely the items that you would carryon in a separate small bag that fits in the overhead or under the seat in front of you. So you check a bag with all your big stuff and clothes and then carry on the small, personal, valuable stuff. People just want EVERYTHING with them. Of note, it’s always the grossly overweight people who have the largest, heaviest bags overstuffed to the gills. They pack like they eat !

  • NedLevi

    Hi. As to people being forced to check their bags with personal items in them, I was referring to those airlines who restrict carry-on weight unnecessarily to 17 pounds (8Kg) or less. My camera alone, with a 70-200mm lens already weighs 8 pounds (3.6Kg). Many vacationers have cameras and lenses similar to mine. That leaves scant room for a tablet for entertainment, a few other breakables, valuables, medications, and a change of clothes.

    I find the carry-on rules for size and weight by the US airlines, sufficient for most everyone.

    I agree with you that right now passengers are obnoxious toward gate agents, and not just about luggage. That said, if the airlines enforced carry-on rules for just the bags which are obviously too big, like those oversized duffels I see on every flight, etc., passengers would adjust, and likely rapidly. Right now they get away with it almost all the time in the US, so they are taking advantage of the situation, and complain bitterly when called on it.

    As to elite passengers, I agree, and it’s not just in the airport. Often they are at their loudest and most obnoxious, while inflight. I’m usually up front myself, and my wife and I often ask each other, when seeing how some passengers treat Flight Attendants, “What happened to civilized behavior?”

  • TMMao

    Unfortunately, as with the rest of life, the loudest and most obnoxious are the ones that frequently become the elite.

  • Mel65

    I dunno. I watched a woman flying from Vegas board with a roller carry on, a large tote/computer bag, a huge purse and 2 handled shopping bags. No gate agents stopped her. No FAs said “uh you are ONLY allowed 2 bags ma’am.” And when she crammed it ALL in an over head bin and I said something to her she ignored me and sat down. Other people had to scramble to find space for their bags. And that was only one example. I get that people b*tch about it, but the fact is, so what? They yell, the gate agents/FAs say “Sorry, we have rules and you’re breaking them.” Lather, rinse repeat as necessary. I applaud that some airlines are FINALLY starting to measure and enforce their rules. I’m tired of following the rules and watching a lot of other passengers break them.

  • jujube28

    I always keep the “letter of the law” in regards to carry-ons. I get really annoyed by 2 things – people who have giant suitcases that they squish into the overhead bin and said “hoggers” squishing my “legal” carry-on, in which I may have packed something delicate and/or breakable having no regard for what they do to my bag in an effort to force their bag into the overhead. I don’t think that flight attendants need to be the baggage police; these people need to be addressed at check-in and they should be charged for their baggage just as I am when I check my bag that does not fit in the overhead bin!!!

  • NedLevi

    I’m with you. My bags meet regulations too, including my checked bag.

  • Davidteegee

    My complaint is more about size than weight. I agree that there is no sensible reason to restrict hand luggage weight but I do object to people who bring on both hand luggage and the extra suitcase into the cabin. The new trick of puttng the suitcase in the first available bin, which it fills, and then proceeding to your seat 20 rows down should be outlawed. Each bin should be marked for each seat and that is what you allowed as hand baggage space. I fit a camera, iPad, Kindle and laptop into my hand luggage, so there is not need to pack these items into your checked baggage.

  • NedLevi

    I hate that too about putting the bag in the overhead bin no where near your seat. Actually, anyone who does that is making a major mistake in my opinion. They can’t easily watch their bag. As mentioned below, I’ve caught a passenger trying to take something from carry-on in the overhead bin twice.

  • TMMao

    If the people at the back of the plane use the bins at the front, where are the front passengers supposed to store their luggage, at the back?

  • AirlineEmployee

    Yes, ironically I recently posed this common dilemma (of bin poaching) in a discussion with supervision. I’m willing to “call” passengers on it as diplomatically as I can. Their “skirted” answer was something to the effect of not to make people angry and to “let it go” as perhaps the passenger might be with someone occupying that row even though they are not seated together.
    I laughed and just gave up .

  • dave3029

    I watched a man two people ahead of me putting a bag into the first overhead bin he found with space in it, then proceed further down to his seat. The guy directly ahead of me pulled it out, proceeded down the aisle, tapped the first guy on the shoulder and said, “Sorry, sir, but you left this in the wrong place” and put the bag in his lap! I almost wet myself laughing.

  • Kitty Mocha

    Since I just fly about 4 times a year to our condo in PHX, I don’t take luggage anymore. I just have a carryon with my computer, important paperwork, etc. that fits under the seat. I bought a camera in PHX to keep there to cut down on being careful about possibly losing things. I still can’t believe what I see brought on board as “carry ons”! There was once a guy with a huge duffle bag and it took up the whole upper area! Then one older guy who came on in hat, topcoat and a rolling bag, put the bag in the middle of the upper bin, folded up neatly his overcoat and placed it on one side of the suitcase, then put his hat on the other!! No space for anyone else. The flight attendant did come and take the hat and coat to a place up front. I wonder if he thought it was his personal “closet” up there. I have yet to see anyone told their bag is too large. I do know that if I have to check a bag anymore, I will not put anything of value in it. Too many times my suitcase was gone through and no paper saying it was TSA! So it makes you wonder who thinks they have the right to riffle through your bag. The airlines need more security to make sure there is no pilfering of bags that are checked. The cost doesn’t scare me off, it’s the employees that think they are on a shopping trip through the bag area!

  • NedLevi

    It’s not just pilfering of checked bags. I’ve caught people twice trying to get their hands in my bag in the overhead bin. I reported the second one to a Flight Attendant who was very cool and collected about her actions. I reported him because he had unzipped my bag (he thought I was asleep). He was met at the gate by the police. The let him go after questioning because he didn’t actually pocket any of my belongings, but I was told by the police who called me at my hotel that he missed his next flight. That was something.

  • Kitty Mocha

    Yes, I’ve heard of that happening to people. I use a lock on the bag I carry on so they can’t get into it easily, especially when I have to use the restroom. I don’t want to come back and find my purse or computer gone! Unfortunately, there are going to be people no matter where you are that try to get your things. Glad you reported the guy cause that will help all of us.

  • pauletteb

    Good article, although I think you meant “flouting” the rules rather than “flaunting” them.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Probably. We didn’t have our usual time to edit this one, and frankly, I’m always getting those two confused!

  • Mel65

    If you’ve got it, FLAUNT it; if you don’t like the rule, FLOUT it. Maybe that’ll help you remember ;)

  • Tom Reale

    I like the new policy of Alaska Airlines of letting people who don’t have anything to store in the overheads get on ahead of the pax who do. It encourages people to bring less, makes more space available, and allows me to get to my seat early and feel very, very smug.

  • Kitty Mocha

    I agree! I only take a bag with my stuff that will fit under the seat. Get on so easily and love it! When I see people struggling with overweight carryons trying to put them above them, that really makes me happy that I don’t do that. When I did take a roll-on bag that needed to go above, I always kept it where I could handle it easily.

  • Redduke

    I can do two weeks in Europe on business with a 22 inch legal roller board case and a “personal item” that fits under the seat (sometimes hard on those aisle seats with the electronics). However I am not a photographer so appreciate your predicament. I do like the vest idea. Thanks.

  • Ethel Hansen Davey

    I understand the size restrictions for carry on but not necessarily the weight restrictions since it all goes to the weight on board. I have seen people at checkin made to take items from their checked bags to put into their carry on bags. Does this make sense? All weight goes on board. If all the airlines were diligent in enforcing their policies and printing the rules IN BOLD PRINT on the e ticket it would make life so much simpler for travelers.