One passenger, one bag: US airline risks all with in-flight restriction

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The Independent Online
Board a domestic flight in America and you know you have certain rights: You are entitled to eat nothing but peanuts and suffer considerable physical discomfort. Best of all, say David Usborne in New York and Randeep Ramesh, you are entitled to bruise, batter and fight other passengers for space in the overhead lockers.

It has been the problem no airline has been willing to acknowledge. Passengers flying within the United States have long been allowed to take two carry-on bags into the cabin. Now one carrier is saying enough is enough.

Starting last week, just in time for the Thanksgiving travel rush, Northwest Airlines took the startling and courageous step of limiting passengers to just one carry-on case, plus a hand-bag or a lap-top computer. Anything else, it has decreed, must be checked into the hold. This for travellers who have traditionally been able to carry as much in the cabin as Europeans can take in an aircraft's hold.

The response from the US public has not been a happy one. The old two- bag rule was already generous but it was also widely flouted. Nervous of surrendering cases to baggage systems that either chewed them or lost them, passengers routinely haul what looks like half their worldly goods straight to their seats.

Even if bags do survive the handlers, the simple matter of waiting 10 minutes at the baggage carousel at the end of a flight is anathema to a society that likes its service - whether it be eating in restaurants or buying by mail order - to be as close to instant as possible.

For British travellers, the service provided is determined by the price of your ticket. Fly on Concorde and take 12 kg of hand luggage. Pay an economy class fare and you can end up with a size limit and be allowed only 5kg.

The Association of Flight Attendants, which has been pushing for an end to the two-bag regime, recently reported that 4,000 passengers suffered injuries in North America last year because of items bursting forth from overstuffed overhead bins. Amongst the missiles were car batteries, birthday cakes, cases of wine and, on one occasion, a bloody yak leg, the attendants alleged.

The risk is greatest in the event of an emergency or crash landing. In one Canadian crash, "overhead bins collapse on top of people, injuring and trapping many of them". The debris blocked four of the aircraft's seven exits.

Airlines point out many of the passengers' requests border on the bizarre. One traveller on a recent British Airways flight tried to bring a Formula One wheel on board. Another instance in Lagos saw a man pass immigration and security counters carrying a complete exhaust assembly for a Mercedes car.

In Britain the problem is made worse by the huge shopping malls that tempt travellers at the airport. "What do you when a passenger has bought a 14 inch television from Dixons in the duty free?" asked Tony Mahood, BA's manager for customer service standards.

It may not be long before other US airlines follow the European model. Yesterday, United Airlines began testing a one-bag only rule on its flights out of Des Moines, Iowa. American Airlines has also signalled a desire to crack down on the carry-on crushes.

The Federal Aviation Authority, which oversees the US air industry, has said it is reluctant to issue regulations to govern what it says is a matter of "passenger behaviour". It has promised, however, to issue guidelines on carry-on limits and they are likely to be in Northwest's favour.