Bin there, stuffed that: Airlines to boost overhead carry-on room

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MINNEAPOLIS — Fliers can stop sharpening their elbows. Overhead bins are getting bigger.

Packed planes and a high volume of carry-ons are forcing airlines to expand the space above passengers’ heads. United and Delta are the latest airlines to replace or upgrade bins so they hold more luggage. And engineers at Boeing are designing jet interiors with today’s bulkier luggage in mind.

It’s a chance to placate passengers who feel like they’re thrown into a roller derby every time they board a plane. Because of fees on checked bags, more passengers are bringing carry-ons, which are growing in size. And with planes more crowded than ever, bins fill up before everyone has reached their seat. Travelers fight physics and one another to shove one more bag overhead.

The result: upset travelers, harried flight attendants and delays.

The percentage of passengers bringing bags on board has hovered around 87 percent in recent years, United Continental said. And “the size of the carry-on has increased. … They are stretching the limits of their bags,” said Scott O’Leary, managing director of customer solutions at United Continental Holdings Inc.

Expanding bins is a smart way for airlines to set themselves apart, said Henry Harteveldt, who leads airline and travel analysis at Atmosphere Research Group, a market research firm. “Especially if they cater to the business traveler, they’re hoping it will give them a small but noticeable competitive advantage.”

Business travelers, for example, avoid an airline that doesn’t have room for their carry-ons.

At first blush, it might seem like airlines risk giving away fees if more people can fit carry-ons on board. But they’re not risking much as it turns out.

Airlines often waive bag fees when luggage can’t fit overhead and must be checked at the gate. And business travelers, who generate most of the industry’s revenue, are often exempt from baggage fees anyway.

Airlines expanding their bins include:

United: The airline is replacing bin doors on 152 planes starting in April. The new doors curve out more than the old ones. That allows passengers to slide bags into the compartment wheels-first instead of sideways. The renovated bins will be on all of United’s Airbus A320s, one of the main jets the airline uses for domestic flying. The planes will hold 106 typical roll-on bags, up from 64. The bins are also getting more rugged latches because latches on overstuffed bins are more likely to break.

Passengers on United’s A320s have had to check their bags at a higher rate than travelers on other planes because there wasn’t enough room. “That’s a real sore point,” Mr. O’Leary said.

• American Airlines: The airline’s new 737s will hold 48 more bags than the planes they are replacing, although they have 24 more seats, too. That means more people and luggage. American’s older 737s are also getting new baggage-bin doors that curve out more. The work is finished on about half of the 76 planes.

• Delta Air Lines: Passengers on international routes such as Atlanta-Paris or Minneapolis-Amsterdam are starting to see new bins on the airline’s 767 jets. The compartments hold 26 more bags than the bins they are replacing - an increase of 23 percent.

Emily Quinnell, who studies social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had to check some small bags at the gate on a recent flight between Minneapolis and Denver. There was no room in the bins. She said airlines should have known that charging for luggage would cause passengers to push the limits of what they can bring on board.

“I’m not going to pay for it,” she said. “I’m a student.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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