Where Does Your Carry-On Go? The Unspoken Rules of the Overhead Bin

Photograph by Benedict Redgrove/Gallery Stock

Millions of times each day on airplanes everywhere is a frenzied land grab for the overhead bins. Passengers jockey for position at the gates, hoping to snag a spot for their roller bags—ostensibly near their seat, although, as the bins fill up, any open space will do. Or will it?

Bloomberg Businessweek readers have strong feelings on the etiquette of the overhead bin, as demonstrated by the outpouring of commentary on our recent look at how airline boarding policies are impervious to data-driven approaches for quicker boarding schemes.

Here’s a commenter named Beth, staking out one side of the debate: “The overhead bin above your seat is yours, not the one in the front of the plane that you steal so that you can supposedly get out of the plane faster.”

Here’s Scott Townsend, on the other side: “Ah Beth, you don’t own the overhead bin above your seat. All bins are for public use.”

And here’s Toby, complicating the issue further: “Beth—You have a point, but actually you share the bin above your seat with the other two people in your row on that side of the plane. Unless someone has put an “undetectable extension charm” via the world of Harry Potter on the airplane overhead bins, there is not room for all three people in a row to put their allowable standard size carry-on suitcases into the overhead bin directly over their seat. So my question to you is, where is the second or third person who gets that row supposed to put their overhead bag?”

The aisle to-and-fro—let’s call it the Roller Bag Waltz—is most often performed by the poor souls in boarding zones five, six, 19, et al, with no hope of finding a spot for their carry-ons. (First-class bin space is usually verboten, unless a flight attendant intervenes.) And passengers are carrying more onto the plane, a function of the bag fees—usually $25 per—that airlines have adopted over the past six years.

On March 1, United Airlines began enforcing its size requirements for bags carried aboard a plane—14 x 22 inches, and no more than 9 inches deep, including wheels. The metal sizer devices you always see and never use will be placed more strategically, so that too-large bags are sent back to the check-in desk before you clear security. After security, however, your bag is generally free to board. United says the enforcement is a customer-service effort aimed at accommodating more bags in the overhead bins and speeding boarding times. American grappled with this same problem a year ago, hoping to get more bags checked at the gate, before they get aboard with no place to go.

Greater size enforcement could, of course, further bolster U.S. airlines’ revenue for checked bags, which totaled $879 million in the third quarter of 2013. Now, could you move your bag over there, please?

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