IATA managed to piss off a whole lot of passengers and airlines in the past few weeks, a display which is rare in its ability to span the range of targets. At the Annual General Meeting on 9 June 2015 the group announced the Cabin OK carry-on baggage initiative. The goal was to define bag dimensions in a manner which airlines could choose to recognize and also to certify bags with an on-bag identifier, essentially marking the baggage as “OK” for the cabin so that passengers would not need to demonstrate such at gate-side sizers. Knowing that the bags are of an approved size without the extra check seems like it would be a winning proposition and IATA even managed to get 10 airlines to agree to the program before the launch announcement. Some days later a clarification release was issued. And a week after that the group “paused” the rollout of the initiative.
So what went so wrong so quickly??
Some may point to the dimensions proposed. With a spec of 55x35x20cm (22x14x8″) the new numbers are smaller than what most airlines allow today. So those airlines should all be OK with the new numbers, right? After all, allowing bags which are known to be smaller than the spec on board seems a great way to increase efficiency of enplanement. Of course, plenty of passengers were annoyed based on the fact that many existing bags are acceptable under current airline policies but not under the proposed rules. But the 10 participating carriers gave no indication they were down-sizing their limits, just that they would recognize the logo. But then even airlines started to reject the proposal. A4A, the US carriers’ lobbying organization, issued a statement saying that the new sizing is
[U]nnecessary and flies in the face of the actions the U.S. carriers are taking to invest in the customer experience — roughly $1.2 billion a month — including larger overhead bins. Our members already have guidelines in place on what size bags they can accommodate, making this action unnecessary.
And that is legitimately part of the concern; there would be no reason for the US carriers to shrink their allowable limits to comply with the new rules given the efforts to expand bin space. But, again, the IATA proposal doesn’t require the carriers to shrink the space; it just says that a tagged bag is known to be smaller. So such bags should be great for the US market where the bins are big enough to hold them. Plus, the US carriers are some of the worst when it comes to consistent enforcement of the sizing rules; surely having a bag marked as “OK” would make it easier for the front-line employees to know that it need not go in the sizer, right?
In the “Cabin OK” literature being distributed to airlines at the AGM was this clause in the terms of participation:
The airline agrees to accept any bag displaying the Cabin bag logo for on-board carriage on flights operated by the airline with a capacity of at least 120 seats.
On-board carriage implies that the bag can fit under the seat in front of the passenger (with some exceptions regarding the aircraft’s configuration) or in the overhead compartment of the aircraft and that the aircraft can accommodate an “approved” bag on board, for each passenger.
And that’s where things get sticky. By agreeing to the guidelines the airlines are essentially promising that the bags will fit on board. And we’ve all been on plenty of flights where bags have been gate-checked, even with most passengers in compliance with the sizing rules. Because even in an ideal scenario there isn’t enough space and things don’t work out so well. And if passengers go out and buy new bags which are “certified” to be Cabin OK and still end up gate-checking them that’s a pretty awful customer service problem.
In the end it is all about messaging. And IATA screwed that up pretty badly on this one. Not because having a common marking for acceptable sized bags is a problem. But because the promise being made – that the bag would fit on board and even near the passengers’ seat – was impossible to deliver upon. And that would fall at the airlines, not IATA.
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