On the Spot: Sizing up the carry-on situation

Los Angeles Times Travel editor

Question: Why don’t the airlines — at least the U.S. carriers, if not all airlines — get together and standardize their policies for the size of carry-on items? This would make a traveler’s life much easier. And why isn’t enforcement given to the Transportation Security Administration staff who check everyone and their baggage anyway?

Daniel Fink, Beverly Hills

Answer: When he ran the Commerce Department in the 1920s, Secretary Herbert Hoover was a big advocate of standardized sizes. During his tenure, for instance, he reduced the number of sizes of paving bricks from 66 to 11 to five. In his engineer’s mind, that would reduce waste and encourage competition. (Next time you’re in the hardware store, thank Hoover for standardizing many building materials.)

And yet....


Many airlines do have standard size limits on carry-on baggage. United, American, US Airways and Continental, for instance, don’t allow carry-ons bigger than 45 linear inches (length plus width plus height), usually 22 by 14 by 9 inches. But Southwest, which flies Boeing 737s, allows carry-ons of 24 by 16 by 10 inches. JetBlue and Alaska also allow large carry-ons.

When you look at the airlines’ fleets, you realize that because the aircraft aren’t all the same, the sizes of the overhead bins aren’t either. Bins in some of the newer aircraft — the Boeing 737-700s, 800s and 900ERs, for example — are larger than those in many of the older models. “As a general rule, bins have been getting larger over several years,” said Vicki Ray of Boeing communications.

We can’t really equate that size increase with the relatively new charges for checked bags. “The whole pattern of the way people travel has changed,” said Michael Mecham, the Northern California bureau chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology. “More people just carry on. In the old days people just checked their luggage.” (Mishandled baggage may have something to do with this; numbers of bumbled bags hit a record high in 2007, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics.)

For an airline with many types of craft — I counted 13 on United’s website — one number is far easier for customers to remember than numbers based on bin sizes. And airlines, Mecham said, fly the craft that makes the most economic sense on a given route. So mandating which plane flies where probably isn’t going to fly.


As for making the TSA responsible, spokesman Nico Melendez said, “Our charge from Congress is to provide for security of aircraft, not for the size of carry-on or checked luggage.”

Nor does the Federal Aviation Administration say anything about size. Indeed, it says only that a carry-on has to be stowed, said spokesman Ian Gregor. “It has to fit in the overhead or under the seat,” he said. “If you look at a lot of FAA regulations, they are somewhat broad because you can’t account for every possible scenario.”

Herbert Hoover, where are you when we need you?

Have a travel dilemma? Write to We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.