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Airplane Carry On Baggage Rules

written by: BuckJamesk•edited by: Jason C. Chavis•updated: 5/19/2011

This article describes the different airplane carry on regulations. How large can the bag be? What is not allowed inside the carry-on? Why have the airlines made these rules?

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    Airline Baggage: Fees, fees, and more fees

    The current landscape of air travel seems to be full of injustice and devoid of passenger comfort. After waiting in a long line to be given an exorbitantly priced boarding pass, passengers are then told that they must pay an extra fee for the small bag that they intend to carry on. What is the cause for this extra fee? Doesn’t the airline make enough money off the ticket? Why are some bags allowed in the overhead bin, but others aren’t? Read on to find out about the current state of airplane carry on regulations.

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    The Current Rules

    As of June 14, 2010, most airlines allow passengers a single carry on bag and a single personal item to be carried on at no extra charge. These items do have restrictions, however; first, at the majority of domestic airlines, a carry on bag must be smaller than 45 inches. This means that if a passenger measures his or her carry on bag, the measurements of the length, width, and height, when added together, must not exceed 45 inches. There is a catch to this rule: the “45 inches or less" size must be made up of standard dimensions that the airline approves. This means that you cannot try to carry on a 43" x 1" x 1" tube. In addition, the carry on item must weigh less than a certain maximum weight, which varies by airline. The personal item can be a laptop case, a purse, or some other small bag; individual airlines have set their own regulations regarding what counts as a “personal item." In many cases, any item that can easily fit underneath the seat on the airplane will be allowed.

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    Why have the airlines created these rules?

    The airlines have imposed these regulations for safety and efficiency. Overhead compartments have limited space, which must be shared by multiple passengers. By ensuring that each carry on bag is smaller than a certain size, the airline can be certain that there will be no problems fitting everyone’s baggage easily into the overhead bins. This helps to expedite the boarding process and let the flight depart quickly.

    A more critical safety aspect is the maximum allowed weight of the carry on item. Airlines do not have time to precisely weigh every item of luggage onboard a given flight; this would add countless hours to the preparation for a trip. However, aircraft performance is heavily dependent on weight, and a miscalculation in the total weight or center of gravity of an aircraft can have deadly consequences. To overcome this problem, the airline dispatchers plan for the “worst case scenario": every bag weighing the maximum amount. The aircraft weight and balance calculations can be done in a timely fashion and the safety of the flight can be assured by setting a maximum allowed weight for each carry on item. Without this carry on regulation, airline personnel would have no way of knowing if a flight was within safety margins, or well beyond the maximum gross weight. Each airline sets a certain maximum weight for carry on items, and this weight can vary from as little as 26 pounds to as much as 45 pounds. More information regarding the maximum weight for a carry-on is almost always available on the airline’s website.

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    Prohibited Items

    Another important airplane carry on regulation to be aware of is prohibited items. Many dangerous items are allowed in a passenger’s checked luggage, including firearms and ammunition. Carry on luggage must be much more carefully regulated than checked baggage, because it will be easily accessible to the passenger during flight. The Transportation Safety Administration is the federal organization in charge of keeping air travelers safe, and is the entity responsible for the heavy increases in security screening. The TSA sets most of the rules regarding what is allowed in your carry on item. One regulation that has recently garnered attention is the rule regarding liquids. The TSA regulation states that each passenger is allowed to have bottles of 3.4 ounces or smaller, contained in a single clear plastic, quart-sized zip top bag. The TSA suggests remembering the “3-1-1" rule when you go to pack your carry on luggage; 3.4 ounces of liquid, 1 quart bag, 1 bag per person. This regulation has been put in place to help defend United States airlines and passengers from terrorist explosives. A complete list of prohibited items can be found on the TSA website.

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    Changing Times

    A fairly recent change in policy has found many airlines charging extra for initial “checked" baggage that will go into the cargo bay of the airliner. As fuel prices increase, airlines may choose to charge passengers for carry on bags. Spirit Airlines has already begun charging for carry on items; while a “personal item" such as a backpack is free, any bag too large to fit underneath a seat incurs a fee. Many passengers feel that any luggage they personally carry should be included with their ticket price, but on an airliner where every extra pound of weight adds fuel costs, airlines are looking for any way to recoup costs.