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Illustration: Jorge De La Paz

APEX Insight: Carry-on luggage has long been a challenge to creating a smooth airline passenger experience. But innovators are moving in to lighten the industry burden.

apex-experience-6-5-roundtable1Every airline passenger experience comes with baggage, literally and allegorically. No matter the packing persona – from carry-on connoisseur to overeager overpacker – the Herculean labors luggage must overcome on its parallel airline journey can take a toll on the traveler beyond backache. Replete with underworld baggage-belt labyrinths, unexpected tolls, laser-eyed security contraptions and near-brushes with gate-check patrol, the trials and tribulations bags go through is the stuff of modern air traveler mythology.

Baggage destined for cargo bellies plots a more treacherous course than hand luggage, which has steered many travelers clear of bag checking altogether. One of the primary culprits pushing passengers to cram all their goodies into roller bags is checked baggage fees. “Airlines in general are just drunk on baggage fees,” says Devin Liddell, principal brand strategist at Teague. As of September, airlines in the United States raked in more than $2 billion in baggage fees this year, a revenue stream that accounts for approximately 20 percent of total airline ancillary earnings on average. “Basically, bag fees are a fine for doing business with an airline,” Liddell says. “If I’m going to pay to have my bag checked, then I should get some value from that beyond just the hassle of a fee for actually having the audacity to bring some clothes with me.”

“People don’t want to check bags because it’s a pain in the ass.” — Nick Careen, IATA

Southwest Airlines is one of the rare holdouts on baggage fees. Despite facing recent pressure from investors to add fees for checked baggage, the Dallas-based low-cost carrier insists on maintaining its “bags fly free” policy. “We believe that the customers our policy attracts and keeps outweighs the revenue we could generate for charging for checked bags,” says Robert Lehr, senior manager of Central Baggage Services for the airline.

But eliminating bag fees may not be a full remedy to the industry’s baggage problems. “Surprisingly enough, the customer dynamic hasn’t changed that much since we moved from not-charging to fee-charging models,” says Nick Careen, IATA’s senior vice-president of Airport Passenger Cargo and Security. “There hasn’t been a dramatic drop-off in checked baggage; it’s been incremental.” Fees are only part of the equation.       

Carry That Weight
Beyond bag fees, several other factors deter passengers from sending their suitcases off on parallel journeys. Put simply: “People don’t want to check bags because it’s a pain in the ass,” Careen says. “People don’t want to line up to drop off bags, they don’t want to run the risk of airlines losing or damaging bags and they don’t want to wait for their bags on the other end.”

To sidestep these risks and inconveniences, some travelers pack parsimoniously, testing how long they can make it in Punta Cana with a wheel-bag’s worth of flip-flops, swim trunks and a TSA-approved allotment of sunscreen. Other travelers are upsizing. “There is a trend of people carrying more on board, especially with more personal electronic items,” says Christine De Gagné, product marketing manager at Bombardier. But even within size limits, a fully booked narrow-body jet is not able to accommodate a bag for every passenger on board. For example, a CS300 can fit up to 131 carry-ons, but seats a maximum of 160 passengers.

“I think theoretically, Cabin OK had great potential. But in reality, the logistics would have been very challenging for airlines, because they don’t all have the same carry-on size metric.” — Christine De Gagné, Bombardier.

“There’s actually a total lack of justice when it comes to carry-on baggage,” Liddell says. “If someone follows the rules set forth by an airline, they are charged to check a bag. Other people bring larger and larger bags on board, and then at the last minute, once the airline realizes there’s not enough room for these bags, it offers ‘courtesy’ checks. So you are basically rewarded for circumventing the rules.”

Lack of space and the use of gate checking as a workaround solution has prompted passengers to become “gate lurkers,” and has led to some unanticipated inconveniences. “When bags have to be checked owing to a lack of bin space or size, customers may leave important items such as keys, medicine and valuables in their bag,” Lehr says.

New Dimensions
Aimed at tackling these problems and providing an industry-wide guideline for carry-on sizes, IATA rolled out its Cabin OK initiative in June last year, before pulling the plug on it nine days later. After consultations with Boeing and Airbus, 22 x 14 x 9 inches was determined as the optimal size for cabin bags. Approved bags would be labeled “Cabin OK,” allowing them to pass through the Herculean trials more easily. Airlines, including Emirates and Lufthansa, expressed interest in the voluntary program, but the backlash was swift and vicious. “We have no intentions of revisiting this. None,” Careen says.   

“I think theoretically, Cabin OK had great potential,” De Gagné says. “But in reality, the logistics would have been very challenging for airlines, because they don’t all have the same carry-on size metric.” Demand from passengers and airlines for more space on board has put pressure on airframers to create larger bins.

Bombardier’s C Series offers the largest stowage in its class, with room for 110 bags on CS100 aircraft and 131 on the CS300. “The bins on the C Series were designed to be easily accessible for passengers, so the loading height when the bin is open is 62 inches,” De Gagné explains. The bins were also designed with heavy, oversized clunkers in mind – accommodating bags as large as 24 x 17 x 11 inches.

Forever Overhead
In De Gagné’s view, particularly for point-to-point travel, there will always be a need for cabin baggage. “I think carry-on baggage is here to stay,” she says. “Many passengers will travel on business and they like to bring their carry-on and exit the airport as promptly and efficiently as possible. So, it’s important for airlines, because they want to offer a fast point-to-point experience; the airline wants to build loyalty.”  

Unveiled at APEX EXPO last year, Teague’s vision of a future airline, called Poppi, also ties carry-on baggage to fidelity. The pretend airline mostly eliminates carry-on baggage, save for small personal items. But in Click Class, a possible reimagining of business class, custom-designed bags are fit directly into the bay of the airline seat for clickable convenience. “It’s a perfect way for airlines to cement relationships with passengers and to make the brands ownable for these people.”   

For Liddell, monetizing convenience makes more sense than charging a fee for the hassles associated with checking a bag. “I actually believe it should be the other way around. I should probably pay to bring my bag aboard, because that is the value of convenience.” 

Pulling Our Weight
Poppi may be a fictional airline, but the industry is primed for something or someone to upend the status quo. “The way we handle bags is definitely going to change,” Careen says. “I don’t think we know the answer yet, but it’s not going to be the way it is now. I mean, the 1970s called and they want their ideas back.”

For Careen, the way forward involves baggage tracking. “As an industry, we are way behind where we need to be when it comes to baggage tracking,” he says. “Passengers should be able to know where their bags are at all times, and so should the airline.” IATA Resolution 753 aims to have all bags tracked by its members by June 2018. “There are a lot of technologies that will allow us to definitively tell customers at all times where their bags are. It will be a significant game-changer on how an airline operates and how it manages that particular process.”

Way ahead of the pack is Delta Air Lines. Launched this year, the airline invested $50 million in a radio-frequency identification (RFID) embedded bag-tagging system that can track bags from check-in to final destination. “They’ll tell you that it’s paid for itself, and I believe it,” Careen says. The RFID system, deployed at 84 American airports so far, reduces the potential for human error, scanning bags at an accuracy rate of 99.9 percent. By syncing with its Fly Delta mobile app, passengers can track where their bags are in real time. Taking a slightly different approach, Lufthansa and EVA Air have teamed up with baggage manufacturer Rimowa and Air France-KLM have partnered with Samsonite to explore electronic bag tags.   

“The fact that Uber stepped in should be troubling to airlines on a couple of levels.” – Devin Liddell, Teague

RFID tracking offers travelers assurance, but people still don’t necessarily want to pick up their luggage at the carousel. Enter the disruptors. “Imagine a passenger walking off the airplane, skipping baggage claim and heading straight to the hotel,” suggests Russell Dicker, head of Airport Experiences at Uber. During a recent presentation, Dicker outlined the blueprint for Uber Luggage, a bag delivery service that would leverage the company’s existing network of cars and drivers. “Right now, we frankly have more questions than answers, but these are the types of puzzles that get us excited,” Dicker says. Uber wouldn’t be the first startup to enter the baggage scene. An assortment of vowel-sparse companies, including AirPortr, Grabr and Dufl, each uniquely aim to lighten travelers’ loads.

“The fact that Uber stepped in should be troubling to airlines on a couple of levels. It’s an example of someone stepping in from the outside to fix stuff that we should be fixing,” Liddell says. “If we’re not willing to step up as an industry and improve, then we deserve what we’re going to get, and that’s disruption.”

“Baggage’s Baggage” was originally published in the 6.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story used outdated figures for the carry-on capacity of Bombardier’s CS100 and CS300 aircraft. This post was updated December 5, 4:00 a.m. EST.  

Katie is a contributing editor for APEX Media, based in Paris, France.