United getting serious about carry-on bag rules

For the past several weeks there have been discussions on FlyerTalk and Milepoint about an impending change in the carry-on baggage policies for United Airlines. Specifically, it seems that the airline has decided to take their policies seriously and enforce them as written starting in March. And now they’re taking the message to their passengers. This week I received an “important announcement” email from United, reminding me that there are rules.


The stated goal is to help ease the boarding process. The cynical view says that it is also about ancillary fees. To me it seems to be a bit of both. With flight loads higher than ever and more carry-on bags coming on the plane the boarding process is slower. And there certainly are a number of passengers who are breaking the rules without a care in the world. The overall effect is that the experience is more stressful and less pleasant. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I’m reasonably convinced that the problem is the US-based travelers more than anything else. Last week I boarded a packed ANA flight from San Francisco to Tokyo. The inbound was delayed and the flight boarded late. And somehow we still managed to get 250+ passengers on to a 777 and off the gate in 15 minutes. This isn’t the first time I’ve been amazed by the efficiency with which ANA can board a flight. I saw similar on my two Thai flights as well. Passengers were simply better about getting on board, stowing their stuff and getting in their seats. And if adhering to the rules helps nudge United in the correct direction I’m all in favor of it.

Then again, I also travel light and rarely for work so enforcing these rules as written won’t really affect me at all. I’m sure sure that those who are traveling a bit heavier are going to be frustrated by the rules. I’m working on how sympathetic I should be to their cause. Right now the answer is not very.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. So what about odd oversized items that can’t be checked? Is United going to break guitars again?

  2. I agree… Have rules and enforce them. Or change the rules.

    The carry on mayhem is too annoying for the rest of us.

    I support UA on this one

  3. @Paul: instruments are always allowed on board if there’s space in the overhead, there’s new FAA rules for and a law passed by congress. Just print them out before you go to the airport. Violins fit on all planes, guitars could be tricky on the tiny regional jets.
    For guitars, the American Airlines policy is more lenient. Good luck!

  4. I’m all for enforcement. I do question the dimensions they base the rules on. I have a 22″ bag that measures almost exactly 22″ × 14″ × 9″ when empty and the wheels and handles are excluded. I’ve had it for seven years and have carried on board United and Continental aircraft hundreds of times. It fits in every overhead bin in the mainline fleet the correct way, with the exception of the most forward bins on some aircraft, due to the fuselage tapering. It fits in the overheads of the Embraer 170 family, but not in the overheads on any CRJ series aircraft. Yet, according to UA’s rule, it’s too big. It’s a Briggs & Riley bag, which means the handle frame is on the outside of the bag, and that adds about 1.5″ to the bag’s 9″ side, making it almost 11″. Yet, it still fits just fine, with room to spare, in the actual bins. I narrowly avoided a gate agent demanding I check it the other night. The problem with this policy is that the rule it is based on doesn’t reflect the actual size of the overhead bins, which are several inches larger on all sides than what this rule allows for.

    My laptop bag also breaks the rule. I just measured it loaded the way it is usually packed. It’s not bulging out or overstuffed at all. It’s 16″ × 12″ × 9″, which also supposedly breaks the rule. Yet, it fits under every coach seat I’ve ever tried to put it under, usually vertically. It also fits vertically in mainline overhead bins with room on top to stuff a light jacket above it. Again, the rule specifies dimensions smaller than the actual storage space available on the aircraft.

    There are clear abusers of the rules. I see at least one on every single flight. However, the way I’ve seen UA handling this, including some really bossy, unfriendly announcements made by a gate agent at IAD last Sunday evening, is all wrong. Yesterday morning at SFO there was a lady at the gate holding a handful of gate check tags, standing next to a sizer, yelling “You, come over here, I need to measure that bag,” at people as they were getting boarding passes scanned. Again, entirely the wrong attitude.

    My suggestion to UA would be:
    1. Base the rule on the reality of the size of the overhead bins. Don’t brag about how you’re modifying bins on the Airbus fleet so they’re bigger, or about the huge bins on 787s, and then come back with rules and sizers that are considerably smaller than the actual storage space.
    2. Accept that some bags are going to be slightly bigger or smaller in one dimension or another, but that the bag is still in the ballpark, and don’t make a big fuss about those. I’ve got two bags that fall into that category, yet in terms of volume and actual fit in the storage spaces, work just fine.
    3. Be courteous and polite in dealing with customers who are in clear violation, instead of barking out orders like a drill sergeant over the PA system (and this applies to every interaction UA has with customers).
    4. Stop taking so long to return bags that are checked. The primary reason I don’t check is because I don’t want to wait around baggage claim 30-45 (or sometimes, even 50-60) minutes for my bag to show up. Alaska guarantees bags show up on the belt within 20 minutes of parking the aircraft, and if they don’t make that goal, gives affected passengers a coupon for future travel. I’ve recently waited a full hour for UA to get bags from a half-full an ERJ to the bag claim at DCA – a relatively small airport in physical size, and plane that probably had no more than 15 bags that needed to be delivered to baggage claim. I’d check a lot more often if UA was faster about getting bags on the belt, but they take forever at virtually every airport I frequent.

    I agree with UA’s intent here. But, like so many things these days, their execution is really bad.

    1. On United, I’ve had my bag be on the belt 15 minutes after arrival on a 757, but it is generally closer to 20-25. On Lufthansa, it is generally around 45 minutes in my experience. Hell, my last Lufthansa flight it took an about 50 minutes to get from the plane to the baggage claim and I still had to wait 10 minutes.

      1. I’ve had it show up quickly as well, but not often. At IAH it usually takes at least 30 minutes after the plane parks; longer if arriving on a domestic flight at Terminal E. At DCA it’s often 30-45 minutes. At IAD it’s usually at least 45. Sure, some places are better than others, but at many UA hubs it’s terribly slow, and it just so happens that virtually every airport I’m regularly arriving at falls into that category.

        I’d gladly check more often if they were faster at returning bags. After all, getting through security (even PreCheck) and walking around the terminal is easier without a roller bag in tow. I used to check my bag all the time, and stopped because I got tired of wasting 60-90 minutes every week, 40 weeks a year, waiting at baggage claim for my bag to show up. It wouldn’t be a big deal if I wasn’t on the road every week, but I am. That time adds up, and the last thing I want to do when my flight arrives on Monday night at 11:00 PM, and I’ve still got the rental car shuttle and a 30+ minute drive ahead of me, is stand around until 11:45 waiting for my bag.

        Move the bags faster and more people will check them, and the carry on/boarding issue gets better.

    2. @Steven- I have to agree on the bag waiting part. At IAD, regardless of where you are coming from, what time it is, or what day it is, United ALWAYS takes from 45-60 minutes to get the bags for pickup. As a comparison, When I fly to LAS or MBJ I beat my bag by only a minute or two.

  5. I must say I’ve never seen as much carry on luggage as on US domestic flights – I was half-expecting kitchen sink to be hauled on board! If any of those passengers then fly a LCC in Europe they’ll be in for a bit of a shock!

  6. I agree with everything Steven stated. Additionally, I would add that your comment about US-based travelers being the most problematic is not necessarily true. I travel internationally for work, and some of the most egregious carry-on violations that I’ve witnessed have actually been in Central, South, and East Asia. As Steven mentioned, there are people who recognize that their bags do not meet regulation size, but the bags still fit and can be accommodated quickly and quietly with minimal fuss. My problem is with the individuals who know that their bags are either significantly larger than regulation size and/or they have more than 1 carry-on + 1 personal item. Those are the individuals who UA should be targeting with emails and at the gate because they are the ones abusing the system.

  7. Boarding isn’t slow cause of luggage, it’s cause we in the US are SLOW when it comes to boarding. It’s a cultural thing. Thai and ANA can board planes in 25 minutes, cause Asians in general are conditioned to moving quickly or risk missing a bus/train/plane. That’s just the nature of people based on their environment.

    I’d actually like to see data on if people in New York (fast-paced) board faster than people in places like California/Midwest (both way more laid-back than NY)

    More specifically, Thai and ANA also don’t charge for a checked bag. Go look at planes in the Middle East and India. People there bring not only the kitchen sink but the whole house. Even the most LCC of carriers offers 15kg free luggage to stay competitive. But EK still manages to board A330s in 45 minutes.

  8. Now, if they’d just put the sizer 5 feet in the air so that people would have to prove that they could actually lift their bag…

  9. Sanjeev, I have noticed that boarding is often faster in some parts of the US than others. Boarding flights to/from smaller cities is often slower, and the sense of urgency much less with many of the passengers.

  10. When I flew a domestic UA Boeing 757 SFO-IAD recently, I was really surprised how long the boarding process took, compared with Southwest. Don’t know whether the difference was caused by larger aircraft size (Southwest flies 737’s), assigned seats, excess carry-ons (since UA charges and Southwest does not), or other factors, but the difference was very noticeable.

  11. Part of the slow boarding is that people do not plan before getting on the plane. Once blocking the single aisle they decided to find the magazine, stow the phone, find a place to rest the coffee before taking off their coat, and a few more things while the rest of us wait to pass them and take our seats. The lack of situational awareness, preparation, and common courtesy all impact boarding.

    It’s like the people that stand of 20 minutes waiting for the bus and then wait until they step on to try and find their metrocard (I live in NYC) or wait until at the metal detector to start emptying their pockets in the airport security line. I can take a metrocard out of a holder in a pocket without breaking stride because I know I will need it in hand before I get to the turnstyle. It’s not difficult people, but you do need to use a little of your brain and realize that the world does not revolve around you.

  12. @steven While I recognize your bag is very close in size, the line must be drawn somewhere and there will always be someone whose bag is so close. While the idea of flexibility is admirable, it also spawns the “you let him do it” or “they let me carry it on in [insert airport here].” My guess is they went with a standard size of bag (based on my quick search of options) and ones that will easily fit into bins. If each bag is slightly more it may render the space unable to hold one more bag because the other three are just a little bit more.

    I do agree the airlines engender distrust with lost bags, slow bags, damage, etc. When the service improves the trust in the airline does too. However, it takes many good experiences to wipe the one bad one from our memory.

    1. I don’t have any trust issues with bags being checked. I’ve had a few bags delayed, but out of hundreds of flights where I’ve checked a bag, I’ve never had a bag truly lost. A handful of times it didn’t arrive with me, but I’ve never had a bag delayed more than about 18 hours, and that was a one-time occurrence with AirTran. Every other time my bag was delayed I had it delivered to me within six hours or less. My issue with checking has nothing to do with worry about a bag not arriving. It has everything to do with not wanting to stand around for up to an hour after I walked off the plane because United seems to be incapable of delivering bags quickly these days.

      As for enforcement, I agree there has to be a line drawn at some point. However, you can enforce and be flexible. Start with the folks who have too many bags. A week ago I sat next to a woman who arrived on the plane with a rolling garment bag (those are almost always way above the maximum size rules), a rolling laptop bag, a purse, and another tote bag that was big enough it could have held my laptop bag, her purse, and probably her rolling laptop bag. Deal with those folks first. For those of us who are within the rules on the number of bags, check the size against a sizer, but make the sizer match the size of the bin. The extra height that is taken up by the external handle on my bag doesn’t prevent anyone else from stowing a bag. It doesn’t reduce the number of bags in the bin. The extra space is air space between my bag and the top of the bin that would likely be empty. Yes, I realize a small jacket might fit up there, but I also plan ahead for that and place my jacket inside my bag when not seated in first class, so that I don’t have to try and stuff it on top of a bag. The 9″ dimension on the larger bag is the one that’s most problematic, because many bags can’t meet that one, but meet the other two, and still fit in the bin properly. I don’t understand why the size limits don’t match the average bin height.

  13. One reason why NH boards quicker is because their cabin crew actively helps passengers stow luggage in overhead bins, as opposed to other carriers (United, Qantas etc come to mind easily) where their crews have a strict hands-off policy (no doubt to shirk the work). In the guise of safety hazards they are just trying to take the easy way out and that also means that service standards are so low on US carriers. Only a masochist or a mileage nut would voluntarily fly a US carrier instead of most Asian carriers.

    1. Ever heard of Economy Plus? I’ve flown Asian carriers and even with the meal and better service on a two hour flight, I prefer Economy Plus.

  14. Has it occurred to you that the efficiency of ANA flight could be because of the crew? Or the aircraft?

    US crews certainly aren’t helpful (and probably less so at the increasingly friendlier United), I am certain their contracts prohibit them from helping with carry-ons. Foreign carriers, Asian crews specifically, seem to go out of their way to be helpful.

    Also, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a Tokyo-bound aircraft be something like a wide-body 767 or 777? Something with 2 aisles and huge overhead bins, thus making boarding a snap regardless of which country it’s flying from?

    1. I considered the crew aspect. But on the few flights I had the crews weren’t doing anything different than what UA or AA crews do. Which is to say nothing. I don’t believe that had an impact.

      To the aircraft size argument, US-based carriers operate wide-body planes, too. They’re still slower in boarding. Something else is at play.

  15. I’m with UA on this one. I hope other airlines follow suit. The amount of stuff that passengers cram into the bins is excessive and sometimes dangerous. When over-stuffed bins are opened, heavy bags can fall out.
    I’d like to see more effort in the check-in line to enforce the bag rules so that the gate agent wouldn’t have to deal with it. My bag is 18″ + handle and wheels. The luggage makers have got to stop advertising bags as carry-on when they are 22″ + handle and wheels.

  16. Everyone’s been talking about UA, but AA is in enforcement mode too. In the past three months, I’ve seen AAgents at both check-in and boarding enforce carry-on size limits. They forcibly gate-checked a good 15 bags on my BOS-DFW a month ago. They were sizing everyone’s bags as they boarded. Just about a week ago at check-in at PHL for PHL-ORD, the AAgent told somebody, that bag’s too big to carry-on. She pointed to my backpack and said, “That’s a legal carry-on size.” There was one other incident in past few months that I can’t recall specifics of. In any case, it’s very, very different from the past.

  17. Oh, and the 15 bags was BEFORE I boarded as an ExecPlat. There were 41 ExPs (according to the FA that checked his tablet computer) in COACH on that flight and I was one of the last of the ExPs to board.

  18. I often take more than the max allowed on as I often carry optics which weigh a lot and are delicate but rarely go anywhere near max I’m allowed in the hold (3 x 70lb on united). I’m much quicker stowing than most people taking on 1/2 the amount and I often help the weaker people stow their gear. I disagree with the policy. BTW I have been on 1000 + flights on many airlines and have never been challenged. So what next? Whip fat, disabled and elderly people to move faster?

  19. What about the passenger seated in the rear of the aircraft, who, while boarding first, stores his carry-on in the overhead of an upfront row when there is more than enough room in the rear? Not only are the lines stopped unnecessarily during his boarding but also of the passenger whose space was taken who then has to wander the aisles in search of an overhead space. It is nothing but extremely rude conduct. Yet crews see it everyday and do nothing about it.

    Also, in complete agreement with m2. The world, and certainly not the boarding process, does not stop b/c you reached your seat. Move into the aisle and let other people pass. It’s just plain courteous.

  20. As far as ANA & Thai being faster, the cultural thing may be the largest factor, but Americans are quite a bit larger on average than Asians but the aisle, etc. is the same size. It makes quite a difference.

  21. I’m agreeing with UA. Too many inconsiderate people bring on oversized, overweight bags that must be forced to fit or returned to the front of the plane for checking, holding up passengers, taking up more space than a bag should, and showing little regard for others around them. The sizers are there for decoration? All airlines should use them. The airlines may be blamed that they just want to make money. However, it is the flyer who will applauded this decision. I always take a small carry on that because of seat restrictions, no longer fits under the seat and because of too-large bags that should not be on the plane to begin with, I still have problems finding room. I would like to think UA would show a “little judgement on wiggle room” but must draw the line eventually. More effort needs to be made to stop oversized bags earlier. And more flyers need to rethink what they consider “carry on” and start checking bags or buy a new one.

  22. how strange that when Ryan Air is backing away from the baggage Nazis that US carriers are moving towards them. This is more proof of monopolistic behavior more than anything else as Ryan Air is feeling the stress on the low cost market in the EU while the US carriers are all dominate monopolies now and feel that they can do as they wish.

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