Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: A carry-on over carry-on baggage

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Airlines need to crack down on 'Mr Big Bags' so aircraft board faster and everyone gets locker space.
Airlines with relaxed carry-on allowances only encourage passengers to stuff their bags. Photo / Getty Images
Airlines with relaxed carry-on allowances only encourage passengers to stuff their bags. Photo / Getty Images

My daughter left for Europe yesterday, on a postgraduate burst of OE, in which she'll be cycling through Europe for six months on her own.

Reaction in the family to her very intrepid journey was divided, but as we said goodbye in the departures hall, I felt more envy than unease. My own experience of travelling tells me that the world is made up of mostly kind and interesting people. Those who mean you harm are vastly outnumbered by those who do not, and are easily avoided anyway if you keep your wits about you.

But she - and I, on her behalf - were feeling plenty of anxiety when she approached the check-in counter. Despite her days of paring down what she would take (her assortment of clothing was about what most of us would pack for a weekend in Rotorua) she just couldn't get her baggage-weight below 26kg. More than 16kg of that was the bicycle she had decided to buy here, rather than tangling simultaneously with culture shock, a language barrier and cycle purchase in Zagreb.

Her problem was that the airline she is flying with has a 23kg baggage limit and a surcharge for being 3kg over is, according to the website, US$165 ($191) - a big dent in her micro-budget.

We took turns standing on the bathroom scales while holding the bike or baggage and subtracting our respective body-weights to perform the dread calculations. Yet I couldn't help wondering whether it was all necessary.

I always travel light - life's easier that way - but I have seen passengers heft bags the size of a maharajah's steamer trunk on to the scales at check-in and walk away without having to produce a credit card.

Surely, I reasoned, her 26kg could be compensated for by the 20kg a traveller of my habits would turn up with somewhere along the line.

As we waited in the check-in line, swapping assessments as to which attendant looked the most kindly, I thought of last week's story about researchers at a New York university who had come up with a mathematical model to speed up boarding of aircraft. The essence of it was that seat numbers would not be assigned, but passengers would be allowed to board according to the number of carry-on bags they had. The policy would reward extravagance because baggage-heavy travellers would get priority.

The research applied to the US domestic and short-haul market where charges for checked luggage (average US$25) have been the norm for six years. Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that Delta Airlines last year collected US$833 million - five per cent of its revenue - from checked-baggage fees.

But heaven help us if the idea catches on here. Long-haul travellers departing from New Zealand with a free baggage allowance routinely drag mountains of cabin baggage with them. Airline rules specify a 7kg limit and combined dimensions (length plus width plus height) of 118cm, and the ones I contacted all told me these regulations were "strictly enforced".

But my experience of sitting in gate lounges with my 4kg shoulder bag persuades me that this is corporate intent, not operating practice. Plenty of passengers have carry-on bigger than my checked bag and it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to fit one of them into those steel "check your cabin bag" frames that you see in the departure halls.

The overloaded types are the ones who leap up to board when the gate staff call rows 67-80 even though they're in row 43. (Have you ever seen anyone told to sit down and wait their turn? Thought not.) They want to get on early so they can fill an entire overhead locker.

Airline ground staff are understandably reluctant to enforce the rules because they don't want disgruntled Mr Big Bags to choose another airline next time. The New York Times reports that United is breaking ranks in the US and hauling the tape measure out. If only others would follow suit.

That's a form of collusion that would benefit everyone.

The charming woman on the check-in desk couldn't waive my daughter's excess baggage fees because her ticket was on a codeshare airline. But €100 ($159) is not a lot to pay to ensure your daughter takes off in good shape.

- NZ Herald

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