The War Over Space in the Overhead Storage Bins

Here is an overhead storage bin which is full. Photograph by FlyerTalk member henkybaby. Click on the photograph for a discussion pertaining to storage in overhead bins in the upper deck of a Boeing 747 aircraft by other FlyerTalk members.

You board the aircraft, carrying a bag on with you. You arrive at your seat and store that bag into the overhead bin above the row where you will sit. As you take your seat to relax — perhaps work on a crossword puzzle 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…
…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 the latest in a series of disputes over the etiquette of that precious overhead bin space that has been ongoing for many years.
The debate over space in the overhead bin is certainly not new on FlyerTalk. 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 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?
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 Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Allegiant Air, each of whom currently charge a fee for the use of space in the overhead bins — and I have yet to read a discussion on FlyerTalk about the war on space in the overhead 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 bins for those passengers devoid of elite status is eventually implemented by the legacy airlines in order to ease — and perhaps eliminate — the overhead bin space wars and profit from it in the process…
…but I digress.
Speaking of elite 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 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 bin if there was food stored in it. Would that count as a safety issue?
Flight attendants are certainly not excluded from the fray. A passenger protested when his bag was moved from an overhead 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 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 bins is full and instruct them to check bagsdespite 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.
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.
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.
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?

  1. If it doesn’t fit in wheels in or wheels out, check it.
    Only one item per passenger goes in the overhead
    If you have to jam it in, don’t.
    No more than 50# in the overhead bag please

  2. Some bags have to go sideways on certain equipment.
    Generally, as much as many will gripe, I have not seen too many cases of overhead bin rage. Most of the time it all woks out.

  3. I fly quite a bit with Air China domestically, and the habit is put your bags in as soon as you board. People get on, put their bags in the first open overhead they see and then proceed to their seats where ever it is. I tend to fly the bulkhead, so often I see people who board later around me and they are forced to find space further towards the back of the plane. Deplaning there is the mad scramble to get your bags.
    As of now space isn’t really an issue and I’ve been guilty of boarding with three bags on occasion; I think with the first two checked bags free or something in this part of the world helps.

  4. On a CRJ, you’d have to put your bag sideways. The CRJ’s bins will only fit something that is the thickness of a backpack though, so space usually isn’t an issue since people’s rollerboards are too large.

  5. Again, I urge everyone interested in the air travel biz to read “Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today” by Mark Gerchick, former FAA General Counsel. He presents the interesting scenario that airlines are making a bundle on checked bags but also saving a bundle by the propensity of many to carry on bags. Savings are achieved by having the traveler lug the bag onboard and stow it themselves, thereby requiring employment of fewer union baggage handlers.
    Reading between the lines, it seems as though a genius came up with the win-win of charging baggage fees. Reduce work force, get per piece payment for the work they actually do and get the travelers to do the grunt work of transport and placement, A flyer who hurts her back in the process is not entitled to worker’s comp or sick days from the airport either.

  6. Only once, when all the bins around my seat were just full enough of small hand luggage to prevent a rollaboard from fitting, did I attempt to identify the owner of one of those bags and ask permission to move her bag across the aisle so my rollaboad would fit. “DON’T TOUCH MY BAG” was her loud, angry yell. Which would not have been so memorable except she was nun. Apparently a nun with anger management issues…

  7. Why not bring back fares with the baggage fees included. People may complain, but when sanity returns they will accept it as a way of life. They do now don’t they.

  8. This is why I firmly believe that checked baggage should be free, and carry-on baggage should carry the fee. Charge $100 per piece of carry-on baggage, but let everyone check-in their bag for free, and you’ll quickly see plenty of overhead space in the bins and much faster boarding times.

  9. I book a seat in the back of the plane. Those seats are called first to board. Never have a problem with the overhead bin. I do see how others do. from afar.

  10. Another call for abolition of checked bagage fees. I never seen this problem on SouthWest or any international flights where checked bags are free. Airlines brought this upon themselves. I find it funny that they have can have union members barking their demands while customers cannot. Flyers should unite in demand to free checked bags or CA’s assisting in cabin storage.

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