Why cabin luggage is a weighty issue this summer

Asummer of discontent? Probably. Events this week suggest that the coming months could make miserable travelling for millions of us. Strife in our favourite foreign country has already wrecked thousands of journeys, as the normally mild-mannered Philip Meeson pointed out. He is the airline boss whose website shows a bout of air rage about events in France: "Jet2.com condemns French Strike Action and calls for lazy frogs to get back to work! We urge the French Air Traffic Controllers to get back to work or get another job."

You can understand Meeson's frustration. Airlines find it tough enough to make money when everything is going according to plan. When flights are grounded, he still has to pay staff wages and aircraft leases; but he also has to hand back the cash paid by thousands of angry passengers. No wonder he is exasperated at the action of air-traffic controllers who this week once again caused the cancellation of hundreds of flights.

"You choose to do the job you do and it's appalling that you are taking advantage of your dominant position by neglecting the responsibility you have to your customers."

Meeson cannot be accused of excessive tact, and his outburst could rebound on his airline - and his customers. Air-traffic controllers of any nationality are, naturally, all-powerful in the space they control. They also have a fair amount of discretion. The aviation world is full of accusations of favouritism shown by controllers (not British, naturellement) to their national airline: as a Ryanair captain remarked one morning while waiting on the apron at Biarritz for permission to leave for Stansted, "We're all ready to go, but apparently we have to wait for two Air France aircraft."

Whether or not there is any truth in such assertions, I would not relish being a Jet2 captain hoping to fly from Nice to Leeds/Bradford. Human nature being what it is, the Boeing might not be first in line for permission to start engines, and when finally in flight through French air space could find itself steering a less than optimal course. Perhaps Meeson recognises this danger in his final comment: "France is undeniably a beautiful country (with equally good food and beer, I hasten to add)."

French air-traffic controllers may wonder why he should mention the nation's average beer (with superior brews available next door in Belgium or Germany), but not its peerless wine.

BRITAIN'S AIRPORTS are unlikely to be oases of tranquillity this summer. Transec, the Department for Transport agency that deals with airline security, has written to the airlines asking them to enforce their own guidelines for cabin baggage and thereby reduce queues at security checkpoints. While all luggage - whether checked in or not - is electronically scanned, the stuff that gets tagged and goes into the aircraft hold is not so security-critical; someone's case could be full of guns or knives, but that does not pose a security risk (at least to the flight) if it is sealed in the hold. In contrast, all hand-luggage must be thoroughly checked.

Now, from an individual traveller's point of view, it makes perfect sense to try to take all one's luggage on board the aircraft. As mentioned in the news item on page 11, on average one in 70 checked-in bags goes astray; if you have only cabin baggage, then you have far more flexibility in changing from one flight to another in the event of disruption; and, of course, you need not hang around in baggage reclaim at your final destination. To these sound reasons, airlines are adding a financial incentive: FlyBe and Ryanair now charge extra for each piece of baggage you check in. This is not a moneymaking scheme; it simply reflects the extra handling costs and the airlines' desire to speed up operations: we passengers are already "self-loading cargo", and how much faster and productive aviation would be if we carried all our bags on board, too, allowing more efficient use of assets.

US airlines have been pursuing this policy for years. They also see liberal carry-on allowances as an important customer-service issue, allowing passengers speedier journeys. Indeed, at one time the first-class cabin baggage allowance on American Airlines was three cases, totalling 54kg.

From the airports' point of view, though, the issue looks very different. Their operations would be smoother, and their profits higher, if cabin baggage were banned.

If no one carried bags on board, far fewer security staff would be needed; checks would take seconds, not minutes. With the time thus saved we could be happily spending in the departure-lounge shops, from which the airport takes a cut, rather than queueing. In addition, shopping is much easier to do when you are not encumbered by a quantity of hand luggage approaching your own body weight. This debate boils down to a spat over earnings. More cabin baggage means lower costs for the airline, but lower profits for the airport.

BRITISH AIRWAYS and other airlines say they intend to enforce their rules (which for BA economy passengers means one 6kg bag). Yet the swift moves towards online check-in or using self-service booths at airports mean that human contact is being eliminated - along with that important but inconvenient question, "And how much hand luggage do you have?" Indeed, from 25 April, BA will abolish staffed check-in for domestic passengers. The debate about whether or not it is reasonable to take on board a laptop, a bag full of books, oh, and a 45-litre backpack and a pair of hiking boots (as I am ashamed to say I tried last time I flew from Heathrow on BA) now takes place at the airport door. By this time you have brought your entire worldly goods through the security checkpoint, adding to the congestion. It can't be long before they bring back the man who used to trawl the security queue at Gatwick armed with a pair of scales, weighing passengers' cabin baggage and sending those who exceeded the limit back to check-in with a stern ticking-off.