Overhead storage bin Etihad Airways
Mood lighting dimly lit the cabin in all of the colors of the rainbow. Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

The Never-Ending War Over Space in the Overhead Storage Bins

You board the aircraft, carrying a bag on with you. You arrive at your seat and store that bag into the overhead storage bin above the row where you will sit. As you take your seat to relax — perhaps work on a crossword puzzle; place a call with your mobile telephone; or look outside the window to while away the time — the aisle starts to fill with a steady stream of passengers, which eventually slows down and stops as people wait for others to store their belongings in the overhead storage bins, which are quickly becoming full…

…and then comes the inevitable fight for space in the overhead storage bins. Sometimes the dispute is as simple as moving a bag from one overhead compartment to another. Sometimes cooperation regarding the rearrangement of space in the overhead bin will satisfy all parties involved. Sometimes requiring the bag to be checked can be another simple resolution…

Improper Use of Overhead Storage Bins?

…and then you have this couple who supposedly threw a huge fit pertaining to bags in the overhead bins on a crowded flight, where they took the liberty to rearrange the belongings of other people and actually shout at fellow passengers about how they filled the overhead bins incorrectly. This humorous yet pathetic tale — as imparted by FlyerTalk member MissJoeyDFW— is but one of a series of disputes over the etiquette of that precious overhead storage bin space which has been ongoing for many years.

Some members of FlyerTalk vehemently and vociferously disagree in this more recent discussion pertaining to exactly how coats should be stored in the overhead storage bin — or should the overhead storage bins be used primarily for luggage only and not for outer garments, which could potentially use up space and force fellow passengers to check their belongings if they cannot fit anywhere aboard the airplane?

The War Over Space in the Overhead Storage Bins

The debate over space in the overhead storage bin is certainly not new on FlyerTalk or to frequent fliers in general. One of the earliest discussions pertaining to the “selfish use of overhead bins” was launched back in 1999 — slightly greater than 14 years ago. Even then, the overhead storage bin space conundrum was not a new issue — FlyerTalk itself just happened to be new, as it was barely a year old at that time…

…and since then, there have been many discussions about the use of space in the overhead bins.

Let’s face it: there is only so much space in the passenger cabin on a commercial airplane. The use of it has been exacerbated by the implementation of fees for checked baggage — remember when there was an uproar over when American Airlines started to charge $15.00 for the first bag checked in 2008? — and increasingly crowded airplanes due to consolidation in the commercial aviation industry and the reduction of capacity due to fewer flights and smaller airplanes.

Nobody wants to check luggage. It could get damaged, lost or stolen. You have to wait at the baggage carousel for what seems like an eternity for your baggage to finally arrive while you stand and stare at that same bag circling the carousel with no owner to be found. How does that always seem to happen?…

…and with the implementation of fees for checked baggage, you now have to pay for the privilege of enjoying that experience first-hand?

Stuff and Cram, Thank You, Ma’am

No thanks, say many passengers who are going to do everything they can to avoid checking their luggage by attempting to stuff it into an overhead bin.

Consider the example of a woman and her young son FlyerTalk member dickinson witnessed carry on bags that were the maximum size — along with a personal item which “was a backpack that extended from her shoulders beyond her derriere” and that the backpack “was much larger than her carry-on suitcases, easily as large as a full size suitcase. She and her son took up so much overhead storage that others seated nearby had a problem finding space for their bags near their seats.”

Did that woman violate any policies with what she and her young son carried aboard the aircraft with them? Was she an “overhead bin hog”?

Of course, the strategy of carrying on as much as possible aboard the aircraft free of charge will not work on Spirit AirlinesFrontier Airlines and Allegiant Air, each of whom currently charge a fee for the use of space in the overhead storage bins — and I have yet to read a discussion on FlyerTalk about the war on space in the overhead storage bins aboard the aircraft of those airlines after the fees went into effect. Do not be surprised if the idea of charging for space in the overhead storage bins for those passengers devoid of elite level status is eventually implemented by the legacy airlines in order to ease — and perhaps eliminate — the overhead storage bin space wars and profit from it in the process…

…but I digress.

Myriad Factors

Speaking of elite level status, should that be a factor with regard to the rearrangement of items in an overhead storage bin — or is this a case of DYKWIA?

Is there such a thing as an improper use of space in the overhead bins — such as placing your bags sideways or laying down your jacket in an area which can be accommodated by a bag?

There are also safety issues with items stowed improperly in the overhead bins. What if you open one and and either an open switchblade or a camera falls out onto the floor — and the owner blames you for damaging it? What if it fell on the head of a passenger?

Who would stow a camera unprotected in the overhead bin in the first place?!?

Then again, there are those passengers who will smash their luggage recklessly into an overhead storage bin without regard of potentially crushing the belongings of others. Do you have any recourse if your property is damaged?

I suppose maggots could create room in an overhead storage bin if there was food stored in it. Would that count as a safety issue?

Airline Employees: Can You Believe Them?

Flight attendants are certainly not excluded from the fray. A passenger protested when his bag was moved from an overhead storage bin to one several rows back in order to accommodate a broken bag belonging to a member of the flight crew. Is this a case of efficient use of space in the overhead bins, or  special treatment for a member of the flight crew?

In fact, some people actually question whether you really believe flight attendants pertaining to space in the overhead storage bins. For example, FlyerTalk member FlyingDL4Fun — who was one of several passengers originally scheduled to be on a later flight but wanted to catch an earlier flight and allegedly forced to check bags in order to expedite the boarding process — found seven empty overhead bins with their doors open.

Gate agents have also been known to announce to passengers boarding an airplane at the gate that all space in the overhead storage bins is full and instruct them to check bags — despite the contrary.

Still, there are times where flight attendants will strictly enforce the policy of storing the first bag in the overhead compartment and the second bag under the seat in an attempt to ensure that as many passengers as possible have a chance to store their belongings before the overhead bins become completely full — but perhaps that is necessary at times.

Other Cases

There was even this bizarre case where a couple stored their belongings in an overhead bin over a row of seats to which they were not assigned — even though the overhead bins directly above their seats were empty.

To be a passenger who is assigned a seat in the premium class cabin — only to find that all of the overhead bin storage space is already full — is certainly not fun.

One airline has even tested the possibility of early valet overhead baggage service in order to help speed up the boarding process.

By the way, two of the most contentious debates pertaining to the use of space in overhead bins are by passengers assigned to seats in the economy class cabin who use the overhead bins in the premium class cabin, as well as the lack of overhead bin space being one of the reasons for “gate lice” — a derogatory term used to describe passengers with low boarding priority who crowd the gate area before being called — but I will save both of those specific debates for future articles here at The Gate.


The answers to the war over space in the overhead storage bins is similar to that of similar wars over reclining seats and window shades: common courtesy, respect and patience with fellow passengers. As I have repeatedly posted in past articles here at The Gate, politeness and respect to others go a long way in keeping as many people happy as possible — including yourself. Compromise and patience are key — and the debate of the window shades is no exception. Equitable compromises have the potential to mitigate this and other controversies pertaining to travel; but with the way human nature sometimes seems to occur — being sneaky as one of the many flaws — complete elimination of this issue is virtually impossible…

…so what exactly are the rules of etiquette — as well as ethics — which you follow pertaining to the use of space in the overhead bins? Is there any time where you can claim that the space in a particular overhead bin is “yours” — especially when someone else “steals” it? How do you ensure that you secure the overhead bin space you want to use once aboard the aircraft? What are your gripes concerning the war over space in the overhead bins?

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

  1. My gripe is when pax but their coats or small bags in the overhead instead of under the seat. Also, where I commute it’s boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts taking up the overhead space !!

    1. Mmmm….doughnuts…

      Actually, Denise, I do not mind when passengers put those items in the overhead storage bins — as long as they do not inconvenience those passengers with more substantially sized belongings who really need to use them…

  2. That’s why I like Southwest Airlines – because of 2 free checked bags, boarding goes very fast. I see a lot less carry on baggage, which takes time to load, and plenty of space in the overheads.

    1. …and yet, Karen, I remember the days when no one wanted to check their baggage — even for free.

      Amazing how times have changed…

  3. Carry on bags go in the bins first. The “personal item” small backpack, purse, laptop bag, etc. goes under the seat in front. Coats and the like go in the bins ONLY AFTER all luggage is in there. Once the boarding is DONE and the FAs are closing the bins, THEN put your coat in there. If not, it goes under the seat in front of you. To the dopes who bring bags too large to fit in the bins in the first place should be told at the gate when their BP is scanned that their bag is doing in the belly of the plane. I don’t care how arrogant or incompetent they are, that won’t overcome the physics of too big a bag in too small a bin.

    1. For me, Captain Kirk, filling the overhead storage bins is like doing a puzzle: which pieces fit best and how to stow as many as possible are two examples.

      Perhaps one of the members of the flight crew should be required to be a proven puzzle solver…

        1. You know what, Captain Kirk? Overhead Storage Wars probably could be a potentially good idea for an actual electronic game.

          With my luck, someone probably already created it…

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