Clamping down on carry-ons? Four issues with United’s new policy


Other than children on planes, carry-on bags might be the most regularly contentious part of airline travel. Most travelers have been on both sides of the issue because sometimes they don’t have much to take on a plane, and sometimes they do.

It’s not just the fees for checked baggage, either. Personally, I have elite status on United, but like many others, sometimes I just don’t want to risk waiting 30 minutes or longer for a bag. (During the last year, I’ve had checked luggage appear almost as soon as I make it to the luggage carousel, and at times I’ve waited over an hour. Clients and friends report the same inconsistency.)

On the other hand, there’s nothing that slows up boarding like people with carry-on issues.

United Airlines is now making a push to do something about the carry-on overload. The airline will tell workers at security checkpoint entrances to eyeball passengers for over-sized bags. Plus, it is putting out bag-sizing boxes at airports before security. They’ve also sent a reminder email to Mileage Plus members.

Passengers whose bags are judged to be too big may be sent back to check their bags, and unlike those who gate-check, will have to pay the bag fee if their bag is too big unless they have elite status.

United thinks this will speed up the boarding process. In theory, it will and, of course, earn them more revenue. They may be right. But, there are a few caveats.

First, while the new policy may speed up boarding, it is likely to slow down the security line, especially while passengers discuss the issue. If the bag in question is over-sized because it is stuffed, travelers may try to re-arrange things into their second carry-on and/or pockets. (I’ve seen people actually start putting on layers of clothes from their bags when stopped for this reason in the past.)

Second, anyone who has one or two must-check bags still has extra impetus to try to sneak an extra bag through. I’m guessing anyone who returns to the line for a second time isn’t likely to be assessed the higher second or third bag fee.

Third, it doesn’t address the infuriating problem of passengers with seats towards the middle or back of the plane using priority boarding to stash their carry-ons in the front rows, thereby making it impossible for people in those seats to stow their own bags. This then starts the whole swimming upstream process as those in the front rows put bags further back and have to make their way back to their own seats. A process repeated upon arrival.

Fourth, there’s still the issue of numbers of bags, especially with post-security purchases. Now, most people don’t buy much — perhaps reading material and/or food. But I’ve been in boarding lines where folks in front look like they’ve done half their Christmas shopping at the airport. And gate agents are incredibly inconsistent on this. Some will stop passengers over a third bag containing a couple pounds of candy, others turn a blind eye. In Dulles last year, I was behind a man with FOUR bags, all decent sized, and he wasn’t even questioned.

In general, I’m personally a fan of a crackdown. But I may need to remind myself of this on the next occasion I have to loosen my expandable carry-on a little. What do you think, Consumer Traveler readers?

  • MilesRunner

    Will United standardize the bag checker? My roll on is designed to be smaller than the standard carry-on size (9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches), but still won’t fit into some of the bag measuring devices. We need one standard for this if they plan to charge for bags that are “too big”.

  • SoCalChris

    While you are at it make us all wear green jumpsuits and black shoes. Choices people that is what America is suppose to be all about. I’m a million miler flyer on UA and I have seen hundreds of folks break this two piece ( and size) rule. It’s about revenue for them and on time performance for ratings.

  • AndTheHorseYouRodeUpOn

    The standards are already there. The problem lies with OBSERVATION and ENFORCEMENT. Airline employees, checkpoint vendors, TSA are a gauntlet of eyes that either “see” things or don’t (and already 2 out of 3 of these – checkpoint and TSA are not airline personnel). If Checkpoint Charlie is asleep at the wheel or chooses to turn a blind eye, it’s all for naught. Also, many passengers “slip through” because they check-in at home and bypass airline personnel at the beginning. As well, they only need to get through the origin station avoiding another security check at connection stations. That’s why I say firmly that this will not work 100% of the time – maybe 90%, yes ?

  • MilesRunner

    The responses to my post seem to miss the point. All I am saying is that United (and other airlines) don’t use the same measuring device for all flights or all airports. If they want to impose restrictions, they need to set ONE standard. I can’t be changing bag sizes in the middle of a trip. I already have a bag that is 1 inch under the max, and still that’s not good enough at some locations.

  • Lisa Simeone

    No sympathy for people who carry on too much junk. If you need so much stuff (god knows why — considering that most Americans dress like slobs when they travel, what’s in those bags?), then check it. Pay for it and check it and quit complaining about it. Otherwise, take less stuff.

    In my days of flying frequently, I had one carry-on bag, strictly regulation size, not a millimeter bigger; that was my entire luggage, even for trips to Europe of up to a month. It went into the overhead wheels first, not sideways taking up extra space. If I wanted to take more, I checked a bigger bag and took only my purse on board.

    But invariably airline employees allowed people on with bags that were obviously too big for the overheads. These travelers have no concept of shared space and just hog what they want, and the flight attendants let them get away with it. Unfair, rude, inexcusable.

    Crack down on them. Enforce the rules. Don’t let people on with oversize bags. If you can’t afford to check your bag, then you can’t afford to fly. It’s part of the deal.

  • SoDoYouSki

    Since most security lines are for multiple airlines, I’d hate to have a United agent harassing me as I get into the line. They could make their clients have to go to the ticket counter to have their bag size(s) checked — printing out your boarding pass at home would have to be stopped.

  • Phil

    One problem is that the luggage companies sell what they label as “carry-on” luggage that does not meet the size limits set by the airlines. I used to have a shoulder bag that met the size requirements but it was too heavy for me to carry since I have a severe back problem. I purchased a “carry-on” with four wheels that is so much easier for me to navigate through the airport from gate to gate. Unfortunately it is 11 inches by 14 inches by 18 inches. It fits easily into the overhead bins and even fit under the seat in a 757 recently when the overhead bins were full but it does not fit into the carry-on luggage sizer that the airlines provide.

  • Lisa Simeone

    That’s interesting. I’ve never seen them actually use that luggage sizer. Glad to hear they’re using it but not if it’s not accurate.

  • MeanMeosh

    As someone who’s had my well-within-regulation carryon bag confiscated by gate agents when I show my Group 3 boarding pass (or B-30+ on Southwest – why people try to cheat on Southwest with no bag fees is beyond me), I applaud any and all efforts to crack down on excessive/oversized carryons by the airlines. However, there are two practical issues that will work against this:

    1) Gate agents are notoriously inconsistent, not just at UA, about what they will permit onboard. What’s going to happen when someone boarding a connecting flight inevitably tells a gate agent properly enforcing the rules, “but the agent at [originating airport] said my bag was OK!!!”. Ultimately, unless UA is going to get serious about having its agents strictly and uniformly enforce the new rules, they’re not going to work.
    2) This doesn’t do anything about the problem of people not sitting in bulkhead seats stuffing things that don’t belong in the overhead bins – small backpacks, laptops, purses, coats, etc. On a Southwest flight one time, two passengers in the row in front of me started haranguing a flight attendant who insisted that they take their coats out of the bin so that another passenger with a properly sized rollaboard wouldn’t have to gate check his bag. To this FA’s credit, she politely but firmly insisted that they comply, and they eventually did, though they sulked and fumed the rest of the flight about how “it wasn’t fair that they had to hold their coats”. If anything, people refusing to use underseat storage is just as much of a problem as oversized/excessive rollaboards on some flights, and for every one FA that tries to enforce the rules, though, there are 10 who just shrug their shoulders and tell the gate agent to checking bags.

  • mjhoop

    Maybe if the airline provided clear plastic bags to hold underseat items so coats wouldn’t be directly on the floor? That would establish that these lesser items are definitely to be stowed under the seat and let the FAs just carry out orders w/o a lot of guff. Many Americans seem to think they merit special treatment, while europeans appear, from my experience, follow the rules without making a big production of it. And perish the thought that a european would embarrass him/herself by making a scene,

  • AirlineEmployee

    Apologize for the length here —
    United can “clamp down” all they want – AND IT STILL WILL NOT WORK. They are just not going to get every passenger to comply nor every employee to enforce it. I see this every single day always with the same dialogue:

    Psgr: “They sent me back from the checkpoint – they said you could give the okay to bring it through”.

    Me: “Sir, sorry, no I can’t override the sizer nor can a vendored checkpoint person (ie., AirServ) tell you I will give “the okay”…. It’s clearly too large as a carryon, you’ll have to check it”.

    Psgr: “Noooooo, I’m NOT checking it !! (temper tantrum mode on, voice pitch raised to a screech)…..I’ve taken this through as a carryon at hundreds of airports….it’s a carryon !!!!!!!!!!!!!! and a variation of the following-

    “I have no money”. (yeah, right, wearing your $1,000 suit).
    “They (the collective they – who are they ???) said you could okay it”……”I’m a 1k, Silver, Gold, Global, is this the way you treat your best customers?????”…..(obviously you’re not my “best” customer if you’re acting like a 5-year old……and, I don’t care if you are a Titanium member).
    I – L O V E — T O — T A K E — O N — T H I S — T Y P E — O F —
    P A S S E N G E R !!!!
    Me: (totally calm to the point of indifference because I’ve heard it a million times before – which means I can repeat it a million times)…..”Sir, you will have to check that, it’s clearly not a carryon as shown by the sizer”. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

    Psgr: “Get your manager”
    Me: Okay.

    Supervisor: (repeats all of the above).

    Psgr: Slams!!!down credit card and mutters the usual “I’m never flying this airline again”. (Yeah, right, till you want to use your million miles to fly to Asia, etc.).

    This is just one example – Only IF they get stopped at the originating checkpoint. Then there are passengers who originated in some small express station, have printed the boarding pass at home, got past checkpoint people there who don’t care and blithely get through…… and then the dance starts yet again at the connection point gate with the oversized, overstuffed thing they call a carry-on.

    Sorry to disappoint you all, but this isn’t going to work; we’ve been repeating the same mantra for years – 100,000’s of people traveling every day through hundreds of airports (the smaller the better to “sneak” the bag through) and airline employees who cave in to the pressure, yelling, tantrums, etc. I see it, feel it, live it every day. I only wish my coworkers would enforce it (gate agents, flight attendants, etc.).

  • Lisa Simeone

    Hats off to you. Honestly, I don’t know how you have the patience to deal with these people. I’ve seen so many rude passengers, and so many airline employees who have to be practically saints. I don’t know how you do it. I have one friend who’s a longtime flight attendant; he’s just trying to hang on till retirement.

  • charlieo

    How lucky you are that you haven’t had to deal the the rude flight attendants or the attendants who just don’t care about their customers. If you choose a job working the public, and if you don’t expect that you will have to deal with nasty, rude, ignorant customers then you shouldn’t be in that job. If you’re working with the public you need expect some rude people and you need to learn how to “deal” with rude people.

  • Lisa Simeone

    I guess I have been lucky.

    Of course there are rude flight attendants, just as there are rude every-other-kind-of-person-take-your-pick in this world. Obviously that doesn’t excuse the rudeness, nor should people whose job is it to “deal with the public” have to put up with it. It’s one thing to expect it, another to justify it.

    I’ve witnessed plenty of level-headed, benign responses by flight attendants to yelling, entitled, temper-tantrum-throwing passengers. As I said, I don’t know how they do it.

  • mjhoop

    No surgery available to install backbone, is there? LOL Some people avoid conflict at all costs, They should not be doing the frontline job of confronting unruly insistent flyers. One place where psych evaluation for the job would be justified, IMO.

  • Lyngengr

    It’s about time that some airline decided to get tough with the self-righteous bin hogs that slow down the loading and unloading process. Of course, this really has little to do with trying to regulate the size of carry-ons, and more about increasing checked baggage fees, but still, it is a giant step in the right direction. Let’s see if other airlines adopt the same policy. And none of this would have happened if the DoT would have established clear, uniform standards for carry-on size (and number) and enforced it. I can’t think of a better use for the TSA than monitoring the size of carry-ons.

  • dcta

    Oh those front of cabin overhead hogs drive me nuts!!!!!!

  • charlieo

    A couple of solutions to the problem:
    A special TSA line for all you folks with carry on luggage
    Charge for any carry-on that doesn’t fit under the seat
    It’s been many, many years since I’ve waited an hour for my luggage to appear, even in european airports. Today, it may seem like an hour, bet it’s only 15 – 30 minutes at the very most.
    No carry on luggage, if it doesn’t fit under your seat it goes in the luggage hold. I know for a fact, from several flight attendants that they would really appreciate not “helping” to squeeze in someones luggage in any overhead bin and of course, no overhead luggage – – – that would really speed up the boarding process

  • janice

    Charlieo, I’ve timed it as over an hour from landing in New Orleans and Orlando in the past year. Both late at night but still. And in Los Angeles it was 50 minutes last December. Seriously. (And I know this because I tend to text family members on arrival so the time is in my phone. ) I do think charging for carry on makes more sense than for checked luggage though.

  • rothsteg

    I flew United last week, in business, from Mumbai to EWR. We pulled up to the gate at 5:15 AM and were the first UA plane in that morning. My bag was on the belt when we cleared Global Entry. My wife’s bag arrived exactly 57 minutes after gate arrival (and well after most of the “non-priority” bags).

  • michael

    There is an incredibly easy solution to this problem – make the openings to the luggage scanners (at TSA checkpoints) no larger that the size of an approved carry on bag. If it doesn’t fit, it would have to be checked. Is this extreme? Yes. But it would remove the inconsistent enforcement that currently exists.

  • Vector

    I have written about this before, just partition the
    overhead bin with the seat number.

    That is yours, you cannot go over into anybody else’s space and no one can use
    your space w/o your permission.

    If it does not fit then down into the hold it goes.

  • mjhoop

    Like most things, it would take awhile for home sapiens sapiens to get used to it, but they would. The FAs would too…….eventually.

  • Nevsky2

    Almost 80% of the problems could be solved by just enforcing the rule that the bag must go straight into the luggage bin and not be put on its side.

  • spbpdx

    I am really surprised at the lack of empathy so many of you have for the extenuating circumstances of your fellow passengers. Like many of you, this is a total pet peeve of mine, but I tend to be on the other side as the rest of you. I am both a business traveler and a parent who occasionally travels with kids. I have had my share of call-outs or pull outs from line because of a “violation” of the rules. One time it was for keeping my laptop separate from my briefcase causing it be “third item” (it would fit inside my roller bag, but I wanted to have easy access to it on board). One time was for carrying a poster tube, a laptop and a projector. All of which needed their own carrying device but none of which took up any more space than required. It is the randomness of enforcement and inconsistent application of common sense that is really irritating. Likewise, traveling with kids, I am not going to bog them down with crazy huge bags, so yes, mine might be a little overstuffed, but technically fit. And yes, I carry a roller bag. I insist on carrying a decent first aid kit and a change of clothes for each of us on flight. I’d like to see you guys handle having your child unexpectedly spill their drink or vomit on you. Also, when the airlines has lost your luggage and you have to find replacement clothes for your kids in an unknown location while you wait for the airlines to find your bag. Those of us who are “offending”travelers have our horror stories too. It would be nice if those of you who are high and mighty would take some time to consider our point of view.

  • mjhoop

    Been there, done that. But parenthood never gave me special privileges. These days seat spaces are smaller, so I can understand your frustration. But when we have FedEx etc, what’s wrong with shipping your equipment that way? Seems like you think yourself a special case that you can’t take your laptop out of the roller bag when you get onboard, How many times has your luggage been lost? Sounds like you would benefit from taking a small plane journey on private carrier. I do believe I heard that they are available.

    Sorry. People who think they are exceptional come in all forms……..