One minute Richard Heiser was dozing comfortably on an American Airlines flight between Los Angeles and Washington. The next, he was unconscious on the floor with a concussion and several cracked teeth.
The culprit: a hard-sided briefcase that toppled onto him from the carry-on bin over his head.
Heiser, 47, the owner of a Bethesda, Md.-based publishing company, recovered and won a small court settlement after the September 1993 incident. But six years later, it is not a victory he relishes.
He is among an estimated 4,500 people injured on U.S. flights every year when laptop computers, baby strollers, crates of liquor, even bowling balls fall out of overhead bins.
“This happens way too often, and the airlines are turning a blind eye to it,” Heiser said.
With air travel booming and many passengers choosing to tote bags instead of check them, the Federal Aviation Administration is being asked to set tough limits on the size and weight of carry-on items. Under current rules, each airline must have a carry-on policy, but the limits are at the airline’s discretion, and enforcement varies.
Some safety consultants say the FAA also should set standards for the bins, requiring restraints that would keep objects from spilling out or prohibiting the bins from being opened in mid-flight.
“No one airline wants to take a radical position on this because no one airline wants to upset the passengers,” said Russell Robison of Injury Prevention Works, a passenger advocacy group. “The decisions are based on competition and marketing, not on the best interests of passengers.”
Some airlines are equipping new planes with larger bins designed with a lip to help prevent spilling, according to the Air Transport Assn., a trade group that represents the major U.S. carriers. Others are limiting the number and size of carry-ons.
“The issue here really is the awareness of passengers,” said Diana Cronan, the group’s spokeswoman. On many planes, the crew announces two warnings about the danger of objects falling from bins. “We’re trying to make passengers aware [that] this is happening,” Cronan said.
Responding to two recent petitions for comprehensive safety standards, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said the agency is reviewing the matter and will decide soon whether to pursue it. The agency does not require airlines to report injuries from falling carry-ons, and it keeps no record of them.
Originally designed to hold coats, hats, blankets and other soft items, airline bins have become repositories for all manner of potentially dangerous objects.
“We always joked that people bring on everything but the kitchen sink, and then recently we learned about a passenger who actually brought on a hand-painted porcelain sink,” said Candace Collander of the Assn. of Flight Attendants, which filed one of the FAA petitions. “Passengers are bringing on more and more stuff, and it’s getting bigger and bigger.”
Studies show that spills occur at all points of a trip: as passengers are loading the bins, rummaging through them in mid-flight or when landing. Falls can also occur during turbulence when bin doors sometimes spring open.
The potential for harm when heavy objects don’t stay put is undisputed: A 20-pound object falling 12 inches collides with 160 pounds of force. A registered nurse, struck by a heavy bag on a flight from Newark to San Francisco, underwent spinal surgery to repair one ruptured and two herniated cervical discs. The operation did not restore enough strength or physical sensation to let her return to her profession. A physician flying into Washington’s Dulles Airport was injured when a metal luggage carrier fell on her head. The resulting nerve damage caused a balance disorder, requiring long-term physical therapy and the use of a cane.
Former U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky of Pennsylvania was knocked unconscious by a falling attache case on a US Airways flight from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia five years ago. Her lawsuit is pending. Court records show that US Airways alone settled 1,000 injury claims due to falling items in a recent three-year period.
“The thing that irks me is this is preventable,” said attorney Maurice Dunie, who won a six-figure settlement for a Maryland woman hurt by a falling luggage carrier in 1994. The passenger experienced memory problems and had to quit her job as a Justice Department lawyer, taking permanent disability.
Confronted with similar accidents a decade ago, several European airlines began outfitting their bins with restraint devices. Behind the bin door, a second, mesh-covered door with a separate latch is designed to catch items that may have shifted during flight. It permits passengers to push objects back into a safe position before opening the door. The system is not foolproof, but it is credited with a 92% drop in injuries at British Airways.
“It’s very simple, and it’s been pretty successful,” said Jonathan Braithwaite, the airline’s project development engineer. “We used to get quite a lot of reports of things falling out of lockers in the old days. The system requires a bit more maintenance, and it was very expensive at first because we have so many aircraft. But there’s not really been a downside.”
The cost to install the Bridport Aviation Products system is about $25,000 per plane. For American Airlines, with 648 planes, the system could cost $16.2 million.
The system has been tested in the United States, but the Air Transport Assn. said no airline is considering installing it.
“It is a very costly device, costly to purchase and expensive to install,” said Cronan, the ATA’s spokeswoman. “But the bottom line is, they’re not effective.” In the testing here, she said, when passengers noticed that items had shifted, they opened the netted doors and the items fell anyway.
“If there were sufficient incidents, the FAA would be requiring us to do it,” said Todd Clay, Delta Air Lines general manager for corporate communications. “At this point, they are not.”
Christopher Reynolds is away on assignment.