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Lawmaker Takes on Oversize Carry-Ons

Tired of overhead bins stuffed to the point of bursting, some frequent fliers say they would welcome a strictly enforced limit on the size of carry-ons that is being proposed in Congress.

Legislation proposed by Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., would set a federal standard for the maximum size of bags a passenger can carry on board - a decision currently left to each airline.

"It's clear if anything is going to be done, it's going to take an act of Congress to do it," says Lipinski, whose district includes Chicago's Midway Airport. "The airlines are not enforcing their own restrictions that they have on the books right now . . . and that causes problems."

Supporters of the proposal say jumbo bags are a safety hazard that could cause injury if they tumble from the overhead bin. And they're unfair to the final passengers to board, who often find no room left for their own carry-ons.

"The flight attendants are saying this is just getting out of control," says Shane Larson of the Association of Flight Attendants, which backs the bill.

Larson says the number of carry-ons has dramatically increased in the last year as more airlines have charged for checked baggage and as flights have become fuller as a result of cuts in capacity.

Though policies vary, the maximum carry-on size allowed by an airline generally falls between 40 and 55 linear inches, according to the Association of Flight Attendants. That's measured by adding the length, width and depth of a bag.

Lipinski's proposal calls for a maximum of 50 linear inches, or 22 inches by 18 inches by 10 inches. Representatives of the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, who screen passengers, would enforce the size limit. Airlines could still set their own parameters as long as they don't exceed 50 linear inches.

Bag fees to blame, some passengers say

The Air Transport Association, the trade group for major U.S. carriers, argues that each airline should continue to set its own standards based on the type of aircraft it flies and the needs of its passengers.

"We can't have Congress determining the size of a bag that goes on board an airplane (just) as . . . they shouldn't be determining the price of a ticket," ATA spokesman David Castelveter says.

Every passenger may not heed size restrictions, but airlines try to make sure they do, he says.

"Carriers do their best to try and ensure consistency, but they're doing a lot of things," Castelveter says. "They're monitoring the size and amount of bags, but they're also trying to get flights out on time. Can we do a better job of enforcement? Probably. And will we? Yes."

Struggling to make a profit as fuel prices surged and an economic downturn chilled travel, most airlines are charging passengers for checking bags. Some charge $25 for the first checked bag, $30 for a second and as much as $100 for a third.

The result is more bags crammed into the passenger cabin, frequent fliers and flight attendants say. "Planes are constantly delayed and seated passengers knocked around while people are trying to cram oversized luggage anywhere they can," says Colby Reeves, 64, of Knoxville, Tenn., who works in construction and flies at least three times a week.

"I attribute it to the bag fees," Reeves adds. "Thirty dollars for a bag is a lot for a lot of people, and they're going to get everything on the plane they can, so I can't blame them. . . . It's a real quandary."

Andrea Huguely, an American Airlines spokeswoman, says that since the carrier began imposing fees on checked luggage, it has seen "a slight increase" in the number of bags carried on board. There has also been a slight dip in the amount of checked luggage, dropping from an average per customer of 1.1 bags to 0.8 bags, she says.

This month, American raised fees by $5, charging those with domestic, economy-class tickets $20 for a first checked bag and $30 for the second.

Additional carry-on bags have "not been anything that our flight crew has not been able to handle," Huguely says.

In the meantime, she says, staffers try to be vigilant in enforcing the airline's policy that carry-ons be no larger than 45 dimensional inches and weigh not more than 40 pounds, keeping an eye out for oversized bags at the ticket counters, near the security checkpoints and at the gates.

But the airlines are not doing a good enough job, Larson says. Flight attendants are often left in the awkward position of having to check an irate passenger's bag at the gate because the overhead space is all gone or the item is too big.

'Not the job of TSA'

"That should all be addressed before the passenger boards the aircraft," Larson says. Flight attendants, he says, "should be focused on preparing the cabin for takeoff."

Instead, he says, "They're left with: 'What do I do with this steamer trunk sitting there in the aisle that this person is refusing to check?'"

Some frequent fliers who back the bill's goals say they don't think the TSA should be the one to enforce it. "The airlines should have to do it," says Sharon Adcock, 52, of Holland, Mich. "TSA has one responsibility: to make sure weapons do not get on planes."

Lipinski says passengers would have to be educated if his legislation passes. But he says that a template that would block an oversized bag from going down the conveyor belt at security checkpoints could ease the process.

"It requires no more work by the TSA," he says. "The bag either fits into the X-ray machine or it doesn't."

The TSA wouldn't comment on the legislation.

Other frequent fliers question why Congress has to get involved.

"To have Congress enact something, to me, is ridiculous," says Steve Metcalf, 51, who lives in Live Oak, Fla., and travels more than 45 weeks a year. "They have more important things to do than worry about what size bag I carry onto the plane."

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