The Evolution of the Carry-On Bag

The Evolution of the Carry-On Bag

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — If your carry-on bag could talk, it would curse out the Transportation Security Administration. And your airline. And the baggage handler who smashed your guitar.

Despite the TSA's announcement on Friday that it would test out a risk-based, intelligence-driven passenger screening program, the majority of Americans still have just as many, if not more, issues with their carry-on luggage. And that monogrammed tote holding your iPod, Kindle, noise-cancelling headphones, Power Bar, neck pillow and Smartwater reveals everything about why it sucks to get on a plane right now.

“People are trying to create this bubble around them when they’re flying,” observes Chris Elliott, a consumer advocate who blogs at “The experience has become so unbearable, you want to create this bubble around you.”

But the carry-on has come to mean more to American consumers than just our first line of defense against the indignities of domestic travel. Carry-ons have become consumers’ lightening rod for their frustrations with the TSA, who with its ephemeral list of prohibited items and regulations for what we can and cannot bring on board has turned the notion of passenger screening upside-down, threatening the health of the aviation industry and our flagging economy besides. Couple that with airlines’ penchant for slapping fees on everything from checked-on bags to tasteless meals and it’s becoming perfectly clear that the game of “what to pack” has evolved into a nasty tug-of-war between consumers, TSA and greedy airlines.

Come Fly With Me

Flying had its heyday in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, a time when passengers donned pearls, flight attendants seemed cheerful (and wore mod uniforms) and pilots looked like clones of Don Draper. It was pricey to fly back then, Elliott recalls, and as such, flights were shorter and typically taken for business trips.

Frequent stops for fuel meant food was rarely served or taken on board, Elliott says, so the average briefcase or pocketbook held the bare minimum of work/life essentials: cosmetics, papers, pens and maybe a book or magazine to pass the time.

Adding to the ease of flying was the fact that fees for checked bags and the wait time for security screening didn’t exist yet. It was easy to leave all that luggage behind and retrieve it at the carousel after arrival.

Unfortunately, the cool factor of air travel masked some serious holes in security, says Jeff Price, a former assistant security director for Denver International Airport. He recalls the pre-9/11 days when the Federal Aviation Administration oversaw airline security and safety and baggage screening was an afterthought.

“Up until the early ‘70s you could walk up to the gate,” Price tells MainStreet. “There was really no screening requirement whatsoever. You had a ticket, you got on the plane.”

Security tightened up in 1973 after two violent hijackings and a bomb scare at the Los Angeles International Airport prompted the FAA to issue an emergency rule making “inspection of carry-on baggage and scanning of all passengers by airlines mandatory,” according to TSA’s website. That measure took on more weight in 1974 when President Richard M. Nixon passed the Air Transportation Security Act, sanctioning the FAA’s rule and implementing checkpoints with metal detectors to screen passengers and X-ray scanners to inspect carry-ons.

But the process remained far from perfect, as suspicious passengers could easily get past the screeners with a mere explanation, says Price. As for the X-ray machines, Price says they were pretty much pointless.

“You’d go to the checkpoint, walk through the metal detector, put your bag on an X-ray machine and the screener was seeing a Rorschach test,” says the former assistant security director for Denver International Airport. “You could identify a hair dryer or car keys, but … any time you had an oblique object, you’d pull that bag and open it, or just ask the passenger what it was and if his answer sounded OK, you let him go.”

Aside from a tweak here and there, aviation security had a long way to go before it would be called even remotely effective.That would take another 27 years, when the events of Sept. 11 threw everything Americans knew about travel and safety inspections out the window.