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Since 2008, most large airlines have imposed fees for checking a bag, which encourages passengers to carry more on board. At the same time, airlines have reduced flights to control costs, making planes more crowded. The result: Space in the overhead bins has never been more valuable.
Recognizing the potential value in that coveted real estate, Spirit Airlines began charging for stowing a bag in the overhead three years ago — the fee now runs up to $100.
Spirit says the fee speeds up boarding by cutting down the number of carry-on bags. The big airlines haven't copied Spirit for fear of angering customers. They've looked for other ways to improve boarding.
In May, American began offering early boarding to passengers with just a personal item that fits under the seat. In a test at several airports, it cut boarding by two minutes per flight, according to Kevin Doeksen, the airline's director of customer planning. With about 1,900 flights per day on American, that adds up.
What's to stop a passenger from moving up in line by promising to put a personal item under the seat, then stuffing it in the overhead bin anyway?
"It would be a lie to say that never happens," says Tessa Letren, an American gate agent at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "We can't always police that."
Still, Letren supports the new policy, which she says cuts the amount of time that planes spend on the ground between flights.
Before the 2010 merger of United and Continental airlines, United used the inside-out method of boarding — window seats first, then middle, then aisle — while Continental used the back-to-front method, loading passengers a few rows at a time starting at the rear of the plane. After much testing, the combined airline kept the United approach. Earlier this year, United set up additional boarding lines in the terminals to attack congestion in the gate area.
The back-to-front system, still used by many airlines, seems logical. But some studies have shown that it's slower than windows-middle-aisle.
"If you're on the aisle and somebody sitting next to you in the middle seat shows up, you need to unbuckle and maybe get up," says Ken Bostock, United's managing director of customer experience. "That can take 20, 25 seconds, and that happens a lot during the boarding process."
Lou Agudo, a United gate agent who worked at Continental before the merger, says boarding by groups of rows practically invited confusion. Just when he thought everyone in Group 2 — the rear of the plane — had gone through, and he called Group 3 to start, "Twenty people would walk up and say they didn't hear the announcement." Some had missed the call for their group, while others decided to get in line no matter what, he says. The extra lanes have made his job easier.
Anything to tidy up the gate area will help, in the view of Yosief Ghirmai, an auditor for defense contractor Raytheon Co. in Frisco, Texas, who says foreign airlines make boarding much easier for elite-level frequent fliers like himself.
"The international airlines respect the priority boarding system," Ghirmai says, citing Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific as an example. "Here, you have to fight to get to the priority boarding line — all the bags, all the kids. The concept (in the U.S.) is the same, but the execution is much better over there."
Selita Garcia of Chicago wondered why anybody in the front of the plane would want to board first.
"We're always bumping into all those business-class people — if it's not my purse, then I'm hitting them with my bag," says Garcia, who manages a doctor's office and was taking her grandson to vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, recently. "Why let them on first? The plane is not taking off until everybody is on the plane."