Take your lead weights on holiday with you...

Hand baggage at dawn: that is the duel under way between Europe's two biggest no-frills airlines. Last week, Ryanair raised its cabin-baggage allowance from 7kg to 10kg; this week, easyJet responded by abandoning the weight limit altogether. The only constraint is volume: your bag must fit the 55cm by 40cm by 20cm maximum dimension, which corresponds to 22 litres. If you took a container of those dimensions full to the brim with lead weights, it would amount to 250kg. Even heavier consignments such as uranium are excluded only on the grounds of radioactivity, not weight. And if this generous allowance is insufficient for your needs, easyJet also allows you to bring a laptop on board in addition.

Hand baggage at dawn: that is the duel under way between Europe's two biggest no-frills airlines. Last week, Ryanair raised its cabin-baggage allowance from 7kg to 10kg; this week, easyJet responded by abandoning the weight limit altogether. The only constraint is volume: your bag must fit the 55cm by 40cm by 20cm maximum dimension, which corresponds to 22 litres. If you took a container of those dimensions full to the brim with lead weights, it would amount to 250kg. Even heavier consignments such as uranium are excluded only on the grounds of radioactivity, not weight. And if this generous allowance is insufficient for your needs, easyJet also allows you to bring a laptop on board in addition.

As cabin crew are fond of reminding passengers, "please take care when opening overhead lockers because items can shift while in flight". Having a weight trainer's cabin baggage of a quarter of a ton drop on your head might take the edge off your journey. But the airline has cleared its plan with the Civil Aviation Authority, which is evidently happy about safety.

Like almost every idea in aviation, there are precedents for easyJet's move. US airlines have traditionally been extremely generous with hand-luggage allowances; for years, American Airlines permitted premium passengers to carry 54kg into the cabin - if they physically could lift (or wheel) such a consignment on board. The extra security precautions at airports since 11 September 2001 have reduced the cabin-baggage allowance, but a densely packed "roll-along" case is still standard equipment for many American travellers.

On this side of the Atlantic, hand-luggage limits have usually been meagre, and strictly enforced. This is irritating for people who are on a short business trip or a quick weekend away, because they have to hang around waiting for their cases to appear at baggage reclaim - or, as happens rather too often, not appear. Suddenly these two bitter rivals, easyJet and Ryanair, seem to have hit upon ways to benefit you, the traveller. Or have they?

Certainly, check-in should be smoother and faster as a result of the eased restrictions, with fewer people suffering an undignified shuffling of their belongings to conform with the limit. The boarding process, though, could be slower as passengers try to find places to stash their newly expanded cabin baggage allowance. On full flights, boarding is already something of a scrum as passengers seek to grab the best seats. What if a party of weightlifters joins easyJet's flight to Edinburgh for their annual convention in Musselburgh, and each needs to find a home for his 250kg kit? Life on board could soon get uncomfortable.

A yet more contentious idea involves the passenger being weighed, along with his or her possessions. The heavier you and your luggage are, the more fuel the aircraft uses: an eight-stone female executive carrying only a laptop will cost the airline less than an 18-stone man plus his full baggage allowance. There are also safety implications; at present, aircraft captains make an educated guess about the take-off weight of their aircraft. In contrast, pilots on a number of small airlines in Latin America and the Pacific region know exactly their payload, because everyone - and their bags - are routinely weighed. The standard combined weight limit for you and your possessions is 100kg (about 17 stone); any higher, and you will pay perhaps a pound for every excess pound. And the weigh-in takes place in full public view.

...OR TRAVEL LIGHT AND GET MONEY BACK AT CHECK-IN

Much of the talk at the fine Pyrenean mountain refuge of La Pierre St-Martin last Sunday evening was about how much (or little) each hiker had paid for the flight from London. Since Ryanair began flying from Stansted to Biarritz, Pau, Perpignan and Girona, the handsome mountains that divide Spain from France have opened up for British trekkers. The average fare turned out to be around £40 each way, though some walkers claimed to have paid even less.

The other topic concerned the weight of backpacks. Some who were planning a complete Atlantic-to-Mediterranean hike along the Pyrenees had tipped the airport scales at 20kg-plus, as did those of us on shorter trips who had foolishly brought a laptop along for the ride. Conforming with the Ryanair weight limit for checked-in baggage of 15kg was a simple matter of removing about a quarter of the rucksack's contents and popping it in a plastic bag for the duration of the flight. But the days of checked-in luggage will soon be over, according to Michael O'Leary, chief executive of the Irish-based no-frills airline. Hikers - and anyone else heading off on an extended holiday, or perhaps transporting Christmas presents - will soon be passengers non grata.

"We're trying to get rid of checked-in baggage altogether," says Mr O'Leary. "It costs so much money to handle. The only reason for having check-in and all the costs associated with expensive airports is for checking in baggage. If you could persuade people just to bring enough bags for carry on, then we think you could make the prices even lower."



Some cynical aviation types refer to passengers as "self-loading cargo". We travellers are cheaper and faster to get on and off a plane than checked baggage. We are also (slightly) harder to lose; Ryanair spends £1m a year on returning wayward luggage to passengers, and it loses far fewer bags than traditional airlines. Mr O'Leary believes that cutting out hold baggage could save £5 per passenger. He has a plan to incentivise his customers to travel light: "What we might do for a period of time is give people who have no checked-in baggage money back at the check in."

That's the carrot; next comes the stick. The Ryanair's boss vision of the future is for each passengers to print out a boarding pass at the time of booking. You would take this, plus your passport and a bag weighing no more than 10kg, through a security checkpoint and straight to the departure gate.

"Maybe it's three years away, maybe it's five years," says Mr O'Leary. But will the airline really turn away a family that turns up with 20kg of baggage per person?

"A family of four won't turn up with 20 kilos because when they make the booking they will agree to limit themselves to 10 kilos each and bring it on board the aircraft."

The typical Ryanair passenger stays just under two days at their destination; for them, the limit seems reasonable. And for the rest of us? "Don't pack three pairs of shoes, just pack one," urges the Ryanair boss. Try telling that to the trekkers in the high Pyrenees.

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