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Why Charging for Carry-On Bags Might Just Make Flying Great -- or at Least Tolerable -- Again

Airports + Flying
by Matthew Meltzer Aug 21, 2018

Flying is never going to be perfect. Or, really, anywhere close. As long as there are summer storms and mysterious “toilet malfunctions” that somehow ground a plane for three hours, the air-travel experience won’t ever be optimal.

But, admittedly, it could be better.

Sure, there are some problems that are really not solvable. Weather happens. Planes break. But there is one simple thing the airlines could do to solve a great number of problems in one fell swoop: charging for carry-ons instead of checked bags.

Before you take to the comments and start blasting me for proposing such a terrible idea — hear me out. Follow my trail of logic and economics, and see why flipping the baggage policy is actually the best thing airlines can do for everyone.

Flying is hell. And it’s all roller bags’ fault.

Since 9/11, flying has gotten exponentially worse, save for maybe the advent of on-demand episodes of Veep. Airport security, once a mere formality, is now more like waiting for a Disney ride on a busy summer weekend — except at the end, instead of Space Mountain you get groped by a stranger.

Once at the boarding gate, you struggle to find an open seat, stumbling over people’s luggage until you resign yourself to finding a table at the nearest Wendy’s. As soon as your flight is called, people rush to the gate like it’s Black Friday and they’ve only got four Tickle Me Elmos left in the cabin. They do this mostly because they don’t want to — gasp — gate-check their bag.

You then wait in the boarding line, which moves at about the same speed as your local DMV, then arrive at your already-cramped seat to find there is no room for your briefcase in the overhead bin because someone thought a hockey-equipment bag still qualified as a carry-on. You put it under your seat, legroom be damned, only to have your flight delayed because some woman with a roller bag big enough to carry a small child refuses to gate check it and paces the aisles until flight attendants threaten to take her off the plane.

If you’re lucky, the flight is smooth, but the flight attendants are already salty from having to argue with half a dozen people who refused to gate check. Before breakfast. Because the plane took so long to board it’s now delayed. So, everyone with a connection sprints toward the front door as soon as the wheels hit the ground. Once they’re done jamming the aisles, the other half gets up, and leaving the plane takes half an hour because people with inoperable hernias, for some reason, thought it was a good idea to pack 75 pounds of stuff into a bag that needed to be lifted over their heads then have to wait for help to take it down.

Eventually, you get off the plane, an hour after you wanted to, and nobody is happy.

But there is a very simple way to solve this all: charging for carry-on bags while making checked bags free.

Carry-on bags should be considered a luxury.

Let’s look at the scenario we just went through and see how fewer checked bags solves all the problems. Fewer jam-packed checked bags mean security lines move exponentially faster, with no liquids to remove and weeks worth of underwear to awkwardly unpack. People won’t worry about lack of bin space and won’t crowd the gate before it’s time. With fewer bags to hoist, boarding will move faster. Nobody will argue or needlessly search for bin space, so flight attendants will be nicer, and planes will leave earlier. People won’t feel as cramped when nobody has luggage under their seat, and getting off the plane will be a pretty seamless experience.

So how do you get fewer people to carry on large bags? Give them the double-edged economic sword with a financial barrier to carry-ons and a financial incentive to checked ones. It is simple behavioral economics.

Airlines aren’t going to give up their baggage revenue, but by flipping it around, they keep their money, and our flights are smoother. The original business wisdom said, “Pass the cost of baggage handlers on to the people who use them,” but clearly that hasn’t worked. What does work is charging for convenience. And not having to wait for a checked bag is very much a convenience.

Airlines do this for other conveniences, such as early boarding or seats near the front of the plane. So instead of charging $25 to the people who actually make the flying experience better by checking bags, charge it to the people who want the convenience of getting out of the airport early.

The extra fee will discourage people from carrying bags on. Free checked bags will encourage them to make the process easier. It also keeps legacy carriers from turning into Spirit, where everything costs money, and helps airlines’ general images by not making them look greedy. “Look,” they say. “We want you to have a free option. But we also want this flight to be more enjoyable while keeping our revenues constant.”

Personal items like purses and laptops will still be free. And roller bags, big duffels, or anything that might slow the process down can be free for elite and premium fliers like checked bags are now. Consider it another incentive. Airlines who already charge for carry-on bags have tags they issue at check-in when you pay, and passengers can’t clear security without them. So the system is already in place.

Look no further than Southwest Airlines for proof that fewer carry-on bags makes for a better experience. That airline — despite its chaotic sit-where-you-want boarding — doesn’t charge for checked bags and regularly has open bin space. Boarding is six minutes faster on Southwest, mostly because passengers opt to check bags free rather than lug them through airports and hoist them into overhead bins. Imagine if they charged money for carry-ons and still let you check two free. There’d be nary a roller board in sight.

People will complain at first and say, “I’m never taking THAT airline again.” But we all know damn well that if an airline shows up as the cheapest flight on Kayak, people are using that airline whether they like its bag policy or not. So, airlines, consider this an easy solution to a lot of your problems and possibly even a money maker. And the next time 200 people don’t rush the gate when you call for people in wheelchairs, you can thank me.

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