American Airlines Eyes New Perk to Get Us to Ditch the Big Carry-Ons

American Airlines Flight Attendant Renee Schexnaildre (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)
Donna McWilliam, AP
[UPDATE: We reported back in March that American Airlines was testing a program that would grant priority boarding to passengers who don't have large carry-on bags. On Thursday the airline formally announced that it's implementing that program on a national basis, allowing customers without a carry-on to board before Group 2 -- that is, right after first-class passengers and elite frequent fliers.

Interestingly, it doesn't look as if American is just looking to save on fuel costs by lightening the load: Customers with a carry-on bag can still score the priority boarding if they agree to gate-check it instead of bringing it on board. As such, it seems the main priority here is to speed up the boarding process, and the company said in its press release that the program did indeed improve on-time performance in tests.

Our original story is below.]

American Airlines is tired of passengers hauling bulky suitcases onto its planes, and it may be willing to entice them to quit with the promise of priority boarding.

Last week, John DiScala of travel site was flying out of Fort Lauderdale when he noticed an American Airlines flight testing a new boarding procedure. The gate attendant announced that passengers who didn't have carry-on luggage that needed to be stowed could board the flight immediately following the first-class passengers and elite frequent fliers.

American Airlines confirmed to him on Twitter that it was indeed testing a priority boarding program for passengers who didn't have carry-on luggage. While it's the first of the big legacy airlines to pursue such a strategy, it's not the first airline to consider it -- DiScala notes that Southwest, Alaska and Frontier are all testing similar programs.

It's not hard to see why airlines are experimenting. Earlier this month, I flew American Airlines and observed the vast majority of passengers (including myself) were hauling large carry-ons and cramming them into overhead bins; the process slowed both boarding and disembarking considerably. With a departure delay putting travelers on the plane at risk of missing their connections, the pilot repeatedly urged passengers to finish boarding so we could leave as quickly as possible. As he spoke, a few of those passengers were still trying to find bins with available space.

Airlines want to turn around flights quickly and keep their on-time rates high, so it's understandable that they'd be looking for incentives to get people to ditch the major carry-ons. But it's also important to remember that American Airlines only has itself to blame for turning its passenger compartments into luggage compartments.

American, you may recall, was the first major airline to start charging customers for their first checked bag, a move it made in the face of rising fuel costs. The other airlines (save for JetBlue and Southwest) quickly followed suit, and now most carriers charge around $25 each way for the first checked bag. It's not surprising that nearly everyone would prefer to cram as much as they can into in a large carry-on rather than pay an extra $50.

But will the promise of priority boarding really get people to ditch all of that "as-big-as-we're allow-to-carry" carry-on luggage?
I'll admit, it was frustrating to stand in the aisle, trapped en route to my seat as a dozen people in front of me struggled to stuff their bags into the overhead compartments. Yes, I would have preferred to get on the plane first, so that I could be seated comfortably while everyone else trudged to their seats.

But I certainly wouldn't pay the $50 checked-bag fee for the privilege. Nor would I be likely to skip the luggage altogether: While some seasoned travelers and business commuters might be able to make do with only a purse or laptop bag, anyone traveling for more than a day or two likely needs at least some luggage. Getting on board a bit earlier would be a nice perk, but it's not worth paying $50, nor going without clean socks.

DiScala says that he likes the idea, but agrees that it's probably not enough to convince most travelers to go luggage-free. And in fact, he notes, in one sense, the perk totally misses the point.

"If you're not [stowing] a bag, why do you want to get on a plane early?" he asks. "The whole idea is to get on the plane early to get bin space before it fills up."

If American and other airlines really want people to stop carrying on so much luggage that it delays flights, they could consider going the route of Spirit or Allegiant, which now tack on a charge for carry-on bags. Or they could go retro, and just do away with their charges for checked baggage.

But don't hold your breath waiting for that second one.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.

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Here is a simple solution to the huge carry-ons. Allow one free piece of luggageper passenger in the cargo hold. Then enforce the existing rules about size for carry-ons. Voila! Problem solved.Passengers still carry the same amount of luggage except now it is dangerously stowed in the passenger area.

March 29 2013 at 9:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

REALLY "eea888" DISCOUNTS FOR PEOPLE? Do you know what this would do to the airlines? Do you enjoy flying? If so get ready to pay more for everything, this is just starting. AND for those LITTLE BOXES, if you knew what they cost for an airline to buy and how much that slows down boarding and how many people fight about it ect ect . all good ideas in your world but speak to someone that works in the Airline industry and get the real truth stop listening to the government bureaucrats that get paid by the oil companies

March 29 2013 at 3:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

airlines did not do this to them selves. the government did this. You do not see the rising fuel cost, I REALLY LOVE WHEN UNEDUCATED PEOPLE MAKE REMARKS ON HERE ABOUT THINGS THEY DO NOT HAVE A CLUE ABOUT!! If you live in a box and are not aware of the things going on outside your little world "clarkecoln" maybe you should not have a comment on this subject. Have you not seen the number of airlines that have vanished and no longer are alive. US Airways and American Airlines were in bankruptcy for good sakes, and we about to close, and vanish if they did not find partners to marry up with to survive. You all love SWA, well guess what they are hurting now also and are selling board first passes to their cattle call. People look at the world and realize if we are going to survive we need government to step up and control the oil companies that make other countries rich, and the rich richer and the poor poorer. GOOD LUCK AMERICAN, HOPE WE CAN SURVIVE!!!

March 29 2013 at 3:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The carry on thing is nuts. Last night on a Chicago-Phoenix flight, a self important female who was in the 3rd boarding group asked others in her row to stuff their already in the overhead items at their feet so she could stuff her bag in the overhead. She was instructed where to stuff......

March 29 2013 at 3:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

really? get on the plane a few minutes before the rest of the passengers and get smacked in the face by all of their carry on luggage? no thank you...........

March 29 2013 at 3:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Nah, I'll just sit here and play with my Ipad and enjoy the wait. And then carry on what you would have tried to charge me for at baggage check in. Dumb idea......

March 29 2013 at 1:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The airlines created this situation when they started charging for checked baggage. It happened immediately. Almost humorous to see them now wondering how to fix the problem they created. I agree with many of the other commentors too... if the airlines would start enforcing their own rules on size of carry-ons it would help.

March 29 2013 at 10:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Why would I want to get on the plane 1st so I could have all of those bags banging me as they walk by carrying them?

March 29 2013 at 10:32 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I'll wait.I have no plans to pay more for luggage just so I can get on or off faster.

March 29 2013 at 8:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

nope...I'll wait ...and take my carry on.

March 28 2013 at 8:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply