The Overhead Compartment Blues

As a frequent flyer I need to discuss how the overhead compartment has been ruined by stupid airline fees, shy airline staff and clueless passengers.

This topic of conversation came up on one of my recent trips from Taipei to Atlanta … featuring stops in Tokyo and Detroit (somehow this route was cheaper than a single-stop ticket, I don’t pretend to understand why). I shared the exit row from Taipei to Detroit with Michelle, a Delta Platinum Medallion flyer whose recent trip record makes mine look pedestrian by comparison.

Michelle and I both work in the tech field, so we had great conversations about the gadgets in our bags. After hours of coach seating and bad meals served in tiny rectangular dishes, our Detroit layover conversation turned to our fellow travelers and their bad habits … specifically the abuse of the overhead compartment.

As a response to the bag fees imposed by money pits masquerading as major airlines, passengers have a habit of cramming all of their belongings into the overhead compartment. I know you’re trying to “stick it to the man” by side stepping a $35 fee … my Scottish ancestry applauds your efforts. However, if you consume more space than you’re supposed to, the only (wo)man you’re sticking it to is the one on the plane with you.

Here’s the scenario … after reading the airline’s guidance on how much space your carry on luggage can consume, you select two appropriately sized bags for the trip. The bags make it through security with minimal hassle and you line up with the other SkyCattle at the gate. Once boarded, you find no space in the overhead for your properly sized belongings. Now your bags are being gate checked by a flight attendant who would rather be serving bourbon to business class passengers.

Why? Michelle has the answer … “the idiots who boarded before you were dicks.”

Yes, you suffer for playing by the airline guidelines. The flight attendants don’t want to be the bearer of bad news to some irate passenger who decides cramming a small cow into the overhead compartment is how they love to fly, so bag sizes go unchecked. The later you board the flight, the more likely you will be parting with your quart sized bag of personal liquids. Even frequent flyers may get screwed by their fellow travelers in Zone 1 who think they’re George Clooney from Up In The Air, while their irate seat mates view them as George Lazenby and wish for them to be recast.

The basic role to follow in air travel, or any endeavor where you interact with others, is Wheaton’s Law … Don’t Be A Dick.

The airlines put themselves in a bad place with bag fees. Trying to pass costs onto people who burn more fuel turned the cabin into a horrible game of Jenga, played by people who don’t know or care about the rules. Yes, the airlines are also being dicks with the way they handle bag fees … but the answer is not to screw over your fellow travelers.

Do not fight dickery with dickery.

If you’re going to fly with just carry-on luggage, here are a few simple tips from a frequent flyer:

1. Buy a smaller bag. You’re going to be dragging this thing all over the airport, why should it be the size of a dorm fridge? Trade in the boat anchor for something a bit more nimble.

2. Carry less crap. I know, a smaller bag means you’re packing less. Good. If you need more stuff on your trip, check a bag or ship items to your destination. Doing one load of laundry on your trip is cheaper than the round-trip bag fees.

3. Make better use of what you carry. Some of that extra nonsense in your bag is just that … nonsense. Gear you don’t use, books you never read, several hundred hotel pens, dupliate cell phone chargers, annoyingly large headphones. Organize those bags and you’ll find all kinds of extra space. The biggest offender here is duplication of digital devices. Yes, I carry an iPad and business laptop, but the iPad replaces books, magazines and the MP3 player I used to carry (and my employer doesn’t care if i use the iPad for Netflix, Facebook or personal web surfing). Unless your iPad and Nook have separation anxiety, maybe one of them can stay home.

4. Use what you get when you get there. Hotels are pretty generous with common travel items … Pens, shampoo, notepads. I’m not advocating filling your bags with complementary hotel inventory (see #2) but I am suggesting you avoid packing things that the hotel will already be providing (unless you have special reasons like allergies or a fear of tiny lotion bottles). The same goes for anyone attending a trade show … this is a place that will provide you with bags, pens, paper and other handy items. Just resist the tacky crap covered in logos (see #2 again).

5. Dress for cargo capacity. The airlines love to tell you how many bags you can carry, but not how many pockets. I love to fly with a fairly casual blazer. This gives me an extra set of pockets which don’t have to be emptied at the security checkpoint … my stuff goes into the coat, my coat goes into a bin, the bin goes into the x-ray. It also helps that the blazer isn’t adding bulk to the bag in the overhead compartment, or that I can appear a bit more formal by throwing the blazer on over most any outfit (slacks and button-up shirt, khakis and a polo, t-shirt and jeans). Note this is one of the few times I will give you an effective fashion tip … treasure this moment.

6. Ditch those wheels. I do own wheeled baggage, but I rarely take it on the plane. I prefer carry-on bags you can actually carry. Wheeled baggage is quite possibly one of the worst things to happen to travelers since ads on the in-seat entertainment system that you can’t turn off (I’m talking to you, Lincoln. No, I don’t want to buy one of your cars. Shut up, I’m trying to laugh at SkyMall.). People who don’t have to lift their bags very often don’t think as much about what they put in them. This results in overpacking. Consider this a new work out plan, just alternate between the right and left arm every few gates.

So lighten up … literally. Leave that crap at home if you’re not going to check bags. Pack smart, travel light and don’t steal the compartment over my seat.

3 Replies to “The Overhead Compartment Blues”

  1. Airlines don’t help by not making it easy to confirm exactly WHICH version of the Magic Overhead Compartments will be on the flight. Extended compartments over the 3-seat side? Short compartments over both sides of a 3×3 seating arrangement? Surprise compartments filled with water balloons and shaving cream? (OK, I made that last one up).

    The underseat space for the aisle seat has also been reduced to almost nothing. The window and middle seats get enough room to park an SUV, while the aisle seat can barely fit a pair of shoes.

    As a musician who frequently carries on something that takes less volume than most carry-ons but isn’t proportioned properly for the current layout, it is difficult to balance finding space for what is at best a squishy center in a crunchy coating with being kind to my fellow passengers. I try to wait until some odd-shaped spaces are left and fit it in on top, but invariably that’ll be over the head of the guy who needs to go to his mobile desk 15 times during the flight and forgets how precariously things are stuffed in, so he gets clocked on the head every time.

  2. I agree on the aisle seat problem. The entertainment system upgrade on many planes steals what little space exists under the aisle seat (easier for the technician to get to it there).

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