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The Airline Industry's Call for Smaller Carry-Ons Will Hit You in the Wallet

The International Air Transport Association, an industry group comprised of commercial airlines, has decided it's time to come up with a global standard for what size a carry-on item should be. And that size isn't large: 7.5 inches deep by 21.5 inches long by 13.5 inches wide.

Those measurements, which would be voluntary for airlines to adopt, are smaller than what many U.S. airlines allow now. JetBlue and Delta, for example, post limits of 9 inches by 14 inches by 22 inches. Switching to the new size would lose passengers 600 cubic inches

The airline industry, as it always does, is spinning its proposals to make it look like it's for the passenger's benefit. The vice president of the IATA said it's "a program that's designed to make things easier for everybody, first and foremost for the passenger."

It's true that carry-on size is problematic. But the IATA wants to reduce bags to such a degree that many customers will be forced to pay to check bags. For example, Alaska Airlines' allowance is currently more than 80% larger than what the IATA proposes.

Smaller bags would make it easier to board a plane—that's true. A restrictive size would curb many of the space hogs who try to stuff their entire closets in the overhead bins. 

Some 40 airlines have already expressed interest in the proposal. And of course they have, because here's what the airline industry doesn't want to announced: Smaller carry-ons would also mean more revenue for them because they would force passengers to check more baggage. The more airlines curtail bag size, the more cash they stand to make from baggage fees. And that will cost consumers.

Consumers will also have to purchase new, smaller luggage that comports to the new rules. 

Although some anti-social passengers still try to tote their hoard on board and take up more than their fair space, carry-on hogs are becoming increasingly socially acceptable. More and more, passengers are doing a good job of shaming each other into managing the size of their carry-ons better. 

U.S. airlines also have a poor record of enforcing their own carry-on size regulations early in the check-in process, a failure that allows oversized bags to make it all the way to the plane and clog space. If the airlines were better at making sure the existing rules were actually enforced at the check-in counter, a smaller carry-on regimen might not be necessary. 

But if smaller bags and thus increased baggage profits are now on the table, what incentive would there be for the airlines to do that?

The airlines should come clean and admit that there's a profit motive to the proposal for smaller bags.

And customers should do everything they can to make sure their own hand baggage doesn't take up more than its fair space—don't give the airlines an excuse to come up with another way to milk us dry.

Update, June 20: After a public uproar and resistance from the U.S. carriers, IATA dropped its proposal, claiming it wanted time to get things right.

(Photo credit: Bonnie Caton/Thinkstock)

Frommer's Editor Jason Cochran is on Twitter at @JasCochran