The Luggage Pendulum

Back in the nineties, common travel wisdom was that you should try hard to never check any baggage when flying. Baggage check systems were unreliable, stuff got lost, and you always had to wait an extra half hour after your flight to retrieve your bags from the carousel. As a consequence, overhead bins on airplanes were always stuffed to capacity. People would get on planes stuff their first big bag in the first space they could find, then stuff their second big bag in the second space. If you were sitting up closer to the front, by the time you were even allowed on the plane, all the ins would be full. Of course, people who paid no attention to the boarding order not only slowed the boarding process down by blocking the aisle, but contributed to the luggage problem.

After September 11, 2001, the pendulum swung. Increased security meant that taking your bags on the plane was a hassle, as they would all have to be x-rayed and possible searched. As a consequence, people started checking heir bags more. I noted just last year that there was always plenty of overhead bin space, enabling passengers to stow their coats and briefcases overhead instead of under seats. This made people more comfortable while flying. If there was something you needed out of your bag, it was probably just overhead. Boarding a plane was faster, since people didn't need to hunt for space.

However, since passengers didn't have to carry those bags through the airport any more, luggage got larger and people would take multiple bags. This increased baggage handling costs for the airlines, so they instituted charges for multiple bags at first, then charges for even the first bag. Faced with higher fares anyway, and increased surcharges besides, the pendulum has once again swung back towards carrying everything on the plane, overstuffed bins, and slow boarding.

What's next, I can't say. Eventually I'm sure that something will happen to urge people to start checking baggage again, but I have no idea what that will be. I will say that I hate flying right now. "Fellow travellers" are often rude, tickets are more expensive, flights are always delayed, crews can't cope with conditions, planes are decaying, and the TSA is a bunch of bureaucratic petty tyrants. Where's my flying car?

2008.08.26 at 12:00am EDT