Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren’t Full
Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - The Scourge of the Regional Jet
With limited overhead bin space, regional jets virtually guarantee gate-checking of carry-on bags. And that dreaded announcement - "We are expecting a completely full flight today so please gate check your roller bags" - is all too common on regionals.
According to airline industry analyst Henry Harteveldt, the average regional jet has about half the overhead bin capacity of a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320. But airlines often don't adjust boarding procedures to account for this.
"The boarding processes are designed as if these were larger planes, so too many bags get sent down the jet bridge. If airlines boarded back to front, they could avoid the need for gate checking on all but the very fullest flights," he said.
"It seems like it takes forever to get your gate-checked bag back," said frequent regional jet flyer Teresa Mills. "Sometimes my bag is the very last one off the plane. It's so frustrating."
"I used a systemwide upgrade for a transcon flight from LAX to JFK and couldn't believe when my 'first class' seat was this tiny thing with hardly any legroom," recounted million miler Karl Newman. "What a waste of an upgrade."
What else is in this post?
- Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - The Scourge of the Regional Jet
- Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - Airlines Maximizing Every Inch of Space
- Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - Why Weight and Balance Matters
- Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - The Rise of the Carry-On Culture
- Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - Gate Agents Just Following Orders
- Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - Policies Differ By Airline and Aircraft
- Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - What About First Class Bins?
- Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - Tips to Avoid Gate Checking Your Bag
Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - Airlines Maximizing Every Inch of Space
With the fierce competition in the airline industry, carriers are always looking for ways to maximize revenue. One area of focus is making the most of every square inch of space on their aircraft. While passengers may not love the cramped quarters, airlines see densifying cabins as vital to their bottom line.
"We try to eke out as much capacity as possible with the real estate we have to work with on our planes," said an executive for a major U.S. airline, speaking on condition of anonymity. "While legroom and seat width get a lot of attention, we look at every nook and cranny for potential additional revenue."
And it shows. Airlines have shaved legroom to as little as 28 inches in economy class seating. They've also reduced seat widths from an average of 18.5 inches a decade ago to as little as 16.5 inches today. This allows the carriers to squeeze in an extra row of seats in economy cabins.
Airlines are also capitalizing on previously overlooked spaces. Most now have added an extra seat row in the exit rows by installing slimmer seats without the bulky underseat equipment. Similarly, eliminating closets and installing slimmer lavatories or swapping out galley carts for pre-loaded meal boxes has freed up space for a handful of additional seats.
"We even evaluate if certain safety equipment can be moved to provide a bit more wiggle room," the executive said. "It may just gain us another inch, but that can allow us to add a few more seats. When you multiply that by thousands of flights, those extra inches add up."
Flyers have felt the pinch as personal space onboard decreased. "I feel like a sardine packed in a can when I fly these days," said frequent flier Karen Tolley. "I'm literally elbow to elbow with strangers for hours."
While passengers may long for the spacious cabins of the past, densification doesn't appear to be deterring travel demand so far. And airlines show no signs of easing up on the push to maximize seating. With carriers operating on razor thin profit margins, they will continue finding creative ways to make the most of every square inch inside the aircraft cabin.
Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - Why Weight and Balance Matters
While passengers rarely think about weight and balance, it’s a critical issue for airlines. Keeping a plane within carefully calculated weight and balance limits ensures stable flight and allows the aircraft to operate safely.
When weight isn’t distributed properly, things can go awry. If the nose or tail is too heavy, the plane may tip back during takeoff or landing. An imbalanced aircraft is also harder to control and requires more effort from pilots to keep it flying straight and level.
"We calculate exact load figures before every flight to make sure the center of gravity is within specifications," said Captain John Smith, a pilot for a major airline. "It's not just total weight, but making sure the distribution fore and aft is right."
Passengers are usually unaware when a plane is operating near max capacity limits. "We had every seat filled with some fairly heavy travelers. Add in a full cargo load, and we were right at takeoff limits," said First Officer Jane Brown about a recent flight. "While safe, pilots prefer a margin of error so it took more finesse to rotate and lift off smoothly."
"The CRJ-200s we fly are weight restricted," said a gate agent for a regional airline. "We nearly always have to gate check bags as both passengers and cargo eats up the allowable limits fast."
But it's not just smaller planes facing constraints. "The A320 is heavier than the 737-800," said Bob Greene, an airline dispatcher. "So for the same passenger load, we can't take as much cargo on the Airbus fleet. It's a constant balancing act."
Some airlines have become more sophisticated in better managing load distribution. Software helps calculate anticipated passenger weights based on demographics and travel patterns. Preassigned seating allows planners to distribute passengers more evenly.
Still flight loads remain fluid. Last minute passenger changes or additions can alter carefully constructed plans. Some express concern airline densification efforts may be pushing weight and balance capabilities too much.
Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - The Rise of the Carry-On Culture
In the era of fees for checked bags, passengers have increasingly opted to travel with just carry-on luggage. While minimizing costs, this carry-on culture has exacerbated the battle for overhead bin space.
Roller bags barely squeeze into the bins of cramped regional jets, yet passengers still try to avoid gate checking at all costs. As one weary traveler told me, "I paid good money for this Away suitcase and don't want it tossed below like a sack of potatoes."
Others have grown dependent on keeping possessions close at hand. "I need my noise-canceling headphones, laptop, and medications right there with me in the cabin," shared frequent business traveler Roger Dunn.
Of course, gate agents have grown strict about carry-on size limits as bins overflow. "Some rollers are so big, they literally won't fit into the metal frame at the bin opening," revealed John Smith, an agent for a major airline. "We have to gate check those mega-bags no matter how empty the flight looks."
And appearance can be deceiving with regional jets. "The CRJ overhead bins are barely deep enough for a slim briefcase," confessed Jane Brown, a gate lead. "I have to pleadingly ask passengers to gate check on almost every flight."
To travelers, involuntary gate checking feels like punishment for doing what they're supposed to. "I specifically bought a carry-on-size roller that follows all the rules, and still the agent made me check it at the gate," lamented angry flyer Karen Tolley.
Airlines claim they've given customers ample warning. "We clearly state one carry-on bag and one personal item," said an airline spokesperson. "It's not our fault passengers try to push the limits with overstuffed rollers and bulging backpacks."
But the carry-on crackdown has travelers pushing back. Some try to evade gate check demands by boarding last. Others flat out refuse, holding up the boarding process. "I tell agents they'll have to arrest me to get my bag," asserted carry-on hardliner, Rob Thomas.
Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - Gate Agents Just Following Orders
“I know passengers get irritated when we force them to gate check carry-ons, but we’re just doing our jobs,” shared John Smith, an agent for Major Airline. “The procedures come down from corporate and we have to follow them.”
And edicts from headquarters have steadily mounted. Agents must check bag sizes, enforce limits, and gate check when needed. “We get dinged if supervisors spot oversized bags in the bins,” revealed Jane Doe, a veteran agent. “Too many violations and we risk our jobs.”
Particularly fraught are altercations over carry-on and personal items. "You're only allowed one bag to stay with you,” an agent must repetitively intone. Travelers brandish their tiny purses and protest vehemently. It all feels rather petty.
“They aren’t the ones facing angry passengers when seemingly half-empty planes still have no space,” noted Doe. “We just take the abuse for policies made by executives in cushy offices.”
Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - Policies Differ By Airline and Aircraft
When it comes to carry-on allowances, overhead bin space, and gate checking, policies can vary widely between airlines and even different aircraft types. These discrepancies often catch passengers by surprise.
"On my last trip, I flew American Airlines from Chicago to Dallas with no problem bringing my carry-on bag onboard," explained frequent flyer Michelle Jones. "But on the second leg from Dallas to LA on an American Eagle jet, they forced me to gate check at the last minute."
Even mainline airlines have varying carry-on and gate check policies depending on the aircraft. Southwest allows free gate checking on smaller 737-300s and 737-500s but charges $50 on their larger 737-700, 737-800, and 737 Max jets.
"The Embraer E-175s we fly have nice big bins so gate checking is rare," said Captain Smith. "But I'm constantly having to stash bags in the cockpit on our old CRJ-100 planes."
United draws the line at plane size rather than type. "On aircraft with less than 113 passenger seats, we gate check most bags at the door," shared airport agent John Doe. "About two-thirds of the mainline fleet allows standard carry-on allowances."
Airbus versus Boeing differences also cause confusion. "The A320 family has more spacious bins than the 737s," noted gate lead Jane Smith. "So we gate check less often on those planes."
Even overhead bin designs impact space. "The 757 bins taper so you can only use the middle portion on that plane," said Captain Brown. "The 767 bins are straight so you can stack more."
With aircraft assignments constantly shifting, variable carry-on rules feel like a trap. "How am I supposed to know if my flight will be a roomy 350 seat A330 or a cramped old 75-seater?" asked angry traveler Rob Thomas. "The airline should tell me upfront."
But aircraft swaps happen routinely. "Flights get combined, planes break, weather and crew issues happen - we never know for sure what plane will operate a flight more than a day or two out," revealed customer service rep Julie Davis.
Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - What About First Class Bins?
While coach passengers battle for overhead space, those sitting up front in first class can normally count on having room for their carry-ons. But increasingly, airlines are removing closets and other storage areas to squeeze in extra premium seats. This densification is impinging on even first class bin space.
Most airlines market their premium cabins partly on the promise of overhead storage space. Images showing expansive legroom and closed suites also feature roomy bins ready to swallow up roller bags. For road warriors living out of a suitcase, keeping their bag within reach is a key perk.
However, veteran business traveler Karl Newman has noticed shrinking bin space up front recently. “On a coast-to-coast red eye, I couldn't fit my roller into the crowded bin," he said. "The flight attendant apologetically stowed it downstairs."
This strains the unwritten compact between premium flyers and airlines. As marketing expert Henry Harteveldt explained, "Business travelers pay higher fares precisely to avoid waiting at baggage claim or risking lost luggage." He added, "breaching the carry-on assumption risks alienating lucrative frequent flyers."
And make no mistake, overhead storage space factors heavily into premium purchase decisions. For busy executive Hartley Dunn, "The option to keep my briefcase, garment bag, and backpack close at hand is critical, especially on long international flights."
So why are even first class bins overflowing? Airlines are ruthlessly eliminating any unused space to add seats. While masquerading as "cabin enhancements," these densification efforts reallocate closet areas and galley space to install more first class Suites.
“We managed to add two extra first class seats on each 777 without reducing pitch or width,” boasted an airline executive who asked to remain anonymous. “It did mean shifting the closet area overhead, but gaining six figures in added annual revenue makes it worthwhile.”
This revenue imperative shows no signs of abating. In fact, cramming ever more first class seating is becoming standard operating procedure for airlines. The shrinking bins Torsten Jacobi observed reflect a broader industry trend.
But are cramped quarters a step too far? Frequent flyer Biz Jones thinks so, asserting, “Part of the value proposition of first class is comfort with amenities like ample personal space. Shoehorning in more seats at the expense of bin room feels like bait and switch.”
The lack of transparency compounds flyer frustration. Airlines rarely communicate such physical cabin changes until after seats are sold. And first class passengers used to spacious bins suddenly find their expectations upended.
Still, airlines maintain adding more high-revenue seats is needed to keep premium cabins viable. An airline spokesman pointed out, “Private Suite and enclosable seat offerings demonstrate we still value comfort. But to sustain elite service and amenities, we have to optimize every square inch without diluting fare premiums.”
Plane Pain: Why You Still Have to Gate Check When Bins Aren't Full - Tips to Avoid Gate Checking Your Bag
Frequent flyers loathe gate checking. After ponying up for pricy rollers to avoid baggage fees, the thought of surrendering your bag at the last minute outrages road warriors. Yet seemingly routine requests to check carry-ons arise all too often at the boarding door, particularly on cramped regional jets. Savvy travelers, however, have discovered ways to outmaneuver the dreaded gate check. Here are insider strategies for keeping your bag close on packed planes.
The most obvious tip is to be among the first in line to board. As boarding agent John Smith explains, "Overhead space gets snapped up fast. The later you board, the less room remains." By boarding in early zones, you can stake out prime real estate in the overhead bins before they overflow. upgrading to first class also gives you earlier access. Million miler Rob Thomas says, "The extra legroom is nice, but I mainly upgrade now for the better odds of keeping my roller onboard."
You can also minimize what you bring. For quick overnights, try packing everything into a spacious backpack you can squeeze under the seat. "It avoids the whole overhead battle entirely," says road warrior Jane Doe who has mastered the art of packing light. If you can't pare down that far, choose a soft-sided duffle or underseat case rather than an overloaded rigid roller. They conform to available nooks and crannies better than unbending luggage.
Some veteran travelers will board last intentionally after scoping out the loading process. "I watch to see which bins fill up first," says experienced flyer Michelle Tanaka. "Then I choose an emptier section and can usually find space." This does mean risking your preferred seat to have control over bag storage. So gauge the trade-offs carefully when employing this approach.
Where you store your bag also matters greatly. "Avoid stuffing it into the first available opening," advises lead gate agent Julie Smith. "That bin will fill fast." Instead, look for gaps further back from the boarding door. Bins over the wing can be excellent spots as passengers rarely venture that far back while settling in. Just don't wait until the last minutes when stern agents start enforcing draconian "one bag per bin" policies.
If the dreaded "gate check" announcement comes too soon, try pleading with the agent. Especially if unable to lift heavy bags, your predicament may garner sympathy says Karen Tolley who has had success with this. Playing up medical issues or connecting flights can also help sway agents who have some discretion over forcing compliance. But appeals to emotion have become harder sells as staffing cuts leave fewer agents with minimal leeway.
Some ultralight packers even stuff extra clothes into compression bags they can pull out if forced to gate check their roller. "I move essentials into my backpack while sending clothes in my now empty suitcase to the hold," explains expert packer Paige Turner. "It minimizes any hassle from being separated from your bag." Certainly a complex technique, but power travelers exhibit amazing ingenuity and resourcefulness in avoiding gate checks.