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Carry-on crackdown: United Airlines enforces bag size limit

By Scott Mayerowitz

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 5 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Delta Air Lines puts agents near security to look for oversized carry-on bags "during peak times at hubs and larger airports." It has also improved technology to check bags faster at gates.

United is going further than other airlines. Its bag sizers have a space for bags going in overhead bins and another for those items going under the seats.

Christina Schillizzi, a frequent United flier from New Jersey, said she was shocked to see the flight crew stringently forcing people to check carry-on bags on a recent flight. They even questioned if her laptop would fit under the seat.

"Fliers were naturally annoyed" and did not want to give up their luggage, she said. "Ultimately, the less-than-friendly flight attendants won out."

United has also updated its website, telling passengers to use the new sizers to test their luggage "so you can check any bags that are too large right there in the lobby."

"You may have purchased a bag that claims to be 'official carry-on size,'" the airline cautioned. "However, this labeling can be misleading because it doesn't specifically represent United's size restrictions."

The process of getting on a plane dramatically changed in 2008, when U.S. airlines started charging extra to check a suitcase. To avoid the fee, more passengers started bringing suitcases into the airplane cabin, many of them overstuffing the bags. Suddenly there was not enough room in the overhead bins.

Airlines now sell priority boarding passes guaranteeing those who pay extra get some space in the overhead compartments. Everybody else is left jockeying for a position at the gate, hoping to get on board before the bins filled up.

Once on the plane, passengers take longer to sit down because they are trying to cram over-packed suitcases into the already overflowing bins. Airlines have been installing new, larger overhead bins, but it has not entirely solved the problem.

"It was getting out of control with how much people were bringing on board," said Michel Jacobson, a frequent United flier who works for a Washington D.C.-based trade group.

Jacobson isn't so worried about paying the $25 checked-bag fee — it's waived for him as an elite member of United's frequent-flier program. Instead, he fears needing to show up at the airport earlier to check a bag he's used to bringing onboard.

When Spirit Airlines started charging passengers in 2010 to place bags in the overhead bin — something only Spirit and Allegiant Air do — executives said the move helped improve on-time performance. Spirit charges $5 more for carry-on bags than checked bags.

Last year, United reconfigured its gate areas to separate the people in boarding group 1 from those in group 2 and group 3 and so on. The goal was to instill some order and speed up boarding.

Then on Feb. 21, Aaron Goldberg, United's senior manager of customer experience planning, notified frequent fliers that the airline was launching "a broad communications campaign to support awareness of our carry-on baggage policy."

And for those fliers with non-compliant bags there was a link offering discounts — and the ability to redeem frequent-flier miles — on suitcases from Tumi, Samsonite and Hartmann.

Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott .

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