Carry on!

by James Wysong on October 24, 2006

Airport carry-on rules don’t make much sense. One moment there is a proposal to lift the ban on scissors, knives and yes, ice picks, and the next moment, a ban on liquids is imposed. Huh? Do you find yourself confused? Do you have any idea what you can take on board the plane? Well, I am a flight attendant and I am just as bewildered. But let me wade in here with some tips and maybe an occasional rant.

Mind you, I have rewritten this column five times just to keep current with the latest Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines, so you’d better double-check the rules before you go, because they have probably changed since I put down my pen.

But first let me ask you something. Have you noticed anything different about air travel recently? I mean, besides the hassle of checking your bags and waiting for them at the other end? Something inside the airplane? Why, yes: It’s the sudden availability of space in the overhead compartments — even on full flights. It sure saves a lot of aggravation in my job. I think the last time flight attendants got a break like this was when smoking was banned on the airplane.

I know it’s pathetic to get excited over something so trivial, but surely nobody misses those gate delays caused by all those many “carry-on” items. How many times did you get to your seat and discover — surprise! — the overhead bin was crammed tight with duffle bags, overnighters, laptops, shopping bags, Stetson hats and coats of all shapes and sizes? You were then forced to stuff your carry-on under the seat in front of you, leaving no room for the items you’d most like to stow: your legs.

At the height of the London bomb scare, I worked up a trip to England just to see what it was like to fly with a total ban on carry-on items. Flight attendants seemed to dance through the aisles as they closed the overhead bins. A delightful hollow ring echoed up and down the cabin. OK, it was offset a bit by the grumpy passengers but, hey, the crew members had to check their bags, too.

Honestly now, how many of you have tried to de-liquefy your bags and still live your life as a clean and civilized human being? You know, change your roll-on antiperspirant to dry, leave the perfume and cologne at home, and yes, actually use the dreaded hotel shampoo and conditioner? I attempted it on a quick trip to Seattle, and I ended up cutting myself multiple times (from shaving with soap and water) and smelling like a putrid almond (from the complimentary lotion).

Recently, authorities have modified the ban on liquids, and I am glad of that. Here are some important things you should know.

1. Travelers may now carry through security checkpoints travel-size toiletries (3 ounces or less) that fit comfortably in one quart-size, clear plastic, zip-top bag. At the checkpoint, travelers will be asked to remove the zip-top bag of liquids from their carry-on and place it in a bin or on the conveyor belt. X-raying the liquids separately will allow TSA security officers to more easily examine them.

2. Larger amounts of prescription liquid medications, baby formula and diabetic glucose treatments must be declared at the checkpoint and are subject to additional screening.

3. After clearing security, travelers can now bring on board beverages and other items purchased in the secure boarding area.

In other words, you can’t bring your own bottled water from home. OK, that makes sense. But then shouldn’t there be a cap on how much vendors can charge for it? I will drink tap water before I will pay more than $5 dollars for a bottle of water. Don’t laugh. Once in a hotel room overseas I found a bottle of water with a price tag of $13.50 sitting next to a bottle of red wine selling for $6.50. I gritted my teeth and drank the wine. I am a man of principles, you know.

OK, here’s one last rant, then the tips. Does it make anyone else mad to follow the carry-on rules, only to find yourself sharing a flight with Mr. Last Minute, who comes dragging what looks to be 13 carry-on bags? Actually, I don’t get mad, I just don’t help. And another thing: Why is there a weight limit for checked luggage but not for carry-ons? Doesn’t this policy just encourage fliers to put their heaviest items in their cabin bags, making them even more dangerous if they fall out of the overhead bin?

My mother used to be one of the biggest offenders. Her excuse was that she had to fly standby (courtesy of free passes from yours truly) so she couldn’t check her bags. She would always pack a minimum amount of clothing (all of it black because it went with everything, including black), but she is an avid book collector, and she kept dragging whole shelves of books aboard. On one trip she actually threw her back out trying to get the books home. I have since taught her to embrace the check-in process.

Did I say that was the last rant? Oh, well, here’s one more. If the rules continue to force travelers to check their bags, then I hope the airlines will make it easier on their customers by assigning more staff to the check-in process. During busy times at an international airport it can take up to two hours in some of these lines — and I’m not even counting the wait at security.

Here are some quick carry-on tips:

1. Know when your bag is too big to carry on and check that big boy in.

2. Get a rollerboard suitcase that fits into the overhead bin lengthwise.

3. Make sure the bin shuts after you’ve stowed your bag. Your carry-on may be the first one in, but if it is protruding when the flight attendant checks the bin before take-off, it will be the first one yanked.

4. Use a soft-sided bag with some give to it. Hard cases can’t be stuffed in tight spaces no matter how much you shove.

5. Baggage space disappears quickly on an airplane, so board as early as you can.

6. For safety and security reasons, try to use an overhead bin in your immediate area. It doesn’t have to be directly overhead, but you should be able to see it from your seat.

7. When opening an overhead bin, always put your hand up, ready to catch anything that might drop out.

8. Don’t worry if your carry-on gets yanked at the gate because of space limitations. Yes, you will have to check it, but it is pretty much guaranteed to be on that flight, and it will probably be the first bag out at baggage claim.

9. If you have something in your bag that you do not wish the security personnel to see, put it in your checked luggage. Trust me on this one.

10. Lend a hand to those in need, especially mothers, and don’t get too mad at those who abuse the carry-on policy. Let them amuse you instead, but be sure to duck if they park their stuff over your head.

I hope this helps. As the days go by and the restrictions are eased, I know I will see the overhead bins starting to fill up again, and I predict they will be overfilled by Christmas. But it is good while it lasts.

See you on board. I will be the one with the ice pick. Why? Because TSA is thinking about letting me have one!

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