Cabin baggage war: are airlines or passengers fuelling the conflict?

·3-min read
 (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

For decades, airlines have been fond of introducing charges for things that were previously free: from seat assignments to inflight catering.

When bringing in a new fee, has any airline ever not said: “These changes are aimed at improving overall customer experience”?

That was what I wondered when I wrote about Aer Lingus emulating Ryanair and easyJet by cutting back on free cabin baggage on flights within Europe.

The Irish airline will still allow those paying the lowest fare to carry a “small personal item” into the aircraft.

Previously they could also take a 10kg case into the cabin. Now, though, that bag needs to be checked in, at no extra cost, unless you pay an extra £6 (which also includes priority boarding).

“These changes are being introduced to ensure faster boarding and de-planing,” says Aer Lingus, “therefore improving overall customer experience.”

Readers enthusiastically latched on to my scepticism. “Scandalous,” wrote one. “They’ll be charging for coats next,” predicted another.

A couple of people put the move into a coronavirus context, with “Recouping Covid losses from their customers?” and “Endearing themselves to wooing back passengers, aren’t they?”

Personally I think Aer Lingus deserves every penny or cent it can raise after this awful year, and deterring baggage is a (very) modest benefit for the environment: not flying your 10kg bag the 280 miles from Heathrow to Dublin saves fuel and emissions.

Yet perhaps it is not so simple as a money-making exercise, suggests Harry, who says he has been a pilot at two large UK airlines: “One low-cost, one not.”

At both of them, he says: “Cabin bags were a major cause of delays and missed slots because 190 people want to place bags in the overhead lockers that have capacity for 80 or so.

“To combat this most airlines offered to place cabin bags in the hold for free.”

Many passengers find that unappealing, for several reasons – notably security and/or convenience, and not having to hang around at baggage reclaim.

From experience, says Harry, some of them will try it on. “About two-thirds of the passengers will then claim to have some life-saving medication (or similar essential) in their bag.”

Cue kerfuffle. “At the end of the day,” says Harry, “the delays cause many more issues and uproar from passengers.

“I’m not paid enough to deal with some middle-aged man shouting at me because we are delayed to Palma, which stemmed from him and others refusing to put their bags in the hold,” he says.

“I’ve been called every name under the sun by passengers acting up because of baggage issues and delays caused by bags.”

In normal summers, Harry says, the following scenario is not unknown.

A fixed, tight departure slot is missed because of a baggage barney. That triggers a hold-up that ripples through the day’s flying, often gathering additional delays. And eventually the airline may face compensation claims from passengers for a delayed arrival that was triggered by travellers earlier in the day.

Airline passengers, says Harry, have an unwarranted sense of entitlement.

“It’s a bus, it just happens to fly. On a coach journey you put your bag in the hold and carry a small rucksack or handbag on your person.”

Passengers these days have to put up with a lot, but mostly government travel restrictions. Crew have to put up with more.

Time to be kinder and respect the professionals simply trying to get us safely where we need to be.

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