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.

You Can’t Take it With You

When President George W. Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act into law on Nov. 19, 2001, responsibility for airport security and screening transferred to the newly formed TSA.

Passenger screening underwent the greatest transformation, as travelers were then required to show trained TSA screeners their valid government-issued IDs. Prior to Sept. 11, all screeners were private contractors hired by airports. They were also required to pack their carry-ons according to the TSA’s new rules for prohibited items.

This posed problems as many consumers weren’t fully aware of the new changes. As soon as those gloved TSA workers went to work confiscating knitting needles, lipstick tubes, nail files, scissors, Swiss Army knives and other belongings considered dangerous, it sparked a massive public outcry.

“There was a move to significantly relax the prohibition against knives and scissors in carry-ons, but that ran into an immediate counter-reaction by the 9/11 families and some security people who argued that these were the same weapons that were used for 9/11,” says R. William Johnstone, author of 9/11 and the Future of Transportation Security. “That pushback led [TSA] to modify the rules.”

As Johnstone points out, the agency has indeed relaxed its standards and taken strides to improve user relations through a blog, contact center, ombudsman ( and “Talk to TSA” feature on its website. Savvy travelers can also access the “For Travelers” section on the TSA website to bone up on the latest rules, like 3-1-1, the new guide for packing liquids, gels and aerosol products.

But just because the TSA loosened its grip doesn’t mean the bag screening process has become any less of a chore for hard-pressed travelers

“TSA’s problem is when it comes up with a new rule at the airport on the fly,” says Elliott, the consumer advocate. “They’re known to do that, the whole ‘take all the items out of your pocket or you’re going through the scanner’ thing. They call it the strategy--unpredictability and flexibility--but I don’t know if that’s working very well for air travelers.”

Travelers are indeed more disgusted with flying than ever, as one 2010 survey by Consensus Research found that “American travelers would take an additional two to three flights per year if the hassles in security screening system were eliminated.” Another study conducted by the Winston Group and Peter D. Hart Research Associates in 2008 found that 33% of air travelers were dissatisfied with the air travel system as a whole, and still another 39% felt their time was not respected.

Of course it’s hard to feel respected when it seems like even the airlines are out to get you.

Coffee, Tea or Fees?

Americans’ relationship with their carry-ons became even more strained in 2008 when airlines decided to unbundle, or separate from the full ticket price, a host of previously unseen fees, from charging extra for seats with more legroom to renting a blanket or pillow during a flight.  

Passengers’ free baggage allowance dropped from three to two to one, says Elliott, and soon every passenger was adopting the mindset that “whatever I think I can get on, I’ll try to get on” when it came to packing carry-on bags.

With major domestic airlines pocketing more than $2.5 billion from baggage fees in the first three quarters of 2010, the outrageous practice is still in full swing, much to the chagrin of consumers and the other people shoving those heavy bags into the overhead bins: flight attendants. 

Steven Slater, the flight attendant who literally took the emergency exit out of his job to become a folk hero doesn’t hide his disdain for bag fees. In a way he even sympathizes with the plight of consumers trying to save a buck in tough times:

“Most of the temper tantrums I see revolve around baggage,” he told CNN in May. “If you’ve got a family of four, and you’re looking at paying $30 or $35 in baggage fees [per person], that’s as much as a whole ticket sometimes. Sometimes the ancillary fees are going to be more than the actual ticket price and that’s kind of galling.”

But if the shoddy experience of dealing with carry-on luggage has turned into a headache for passengers and flight attendants, it has become a living nightmare for the aviation industry.

Crammed checkpoints due to over-packed carry-ons have caused an excessive amount of funds to be put toward TSA’s budget, according to the U.S. Travel Association’s report on the state of the industry. From fiscal years 2004-2010, the agency’s yearly budget increased by almost 70%, from $4.5 billion to $7.6 billion, while from fiscal year 2008 to 2009 that number jumped by more than $600 million despite a decline in passenger travel. The culprit: carry-on bags. 

At a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano admitted that consumers’ obsession with taking everything they can on board costs the TSA roughly $260 million each year. 

If Americans continue to grow discouraged wtih flying, their decision to opt out could banish what the U.S. Travel Association estimates would be nearly $85 million in consumer spending and 900,000 jobs. Going further, the Winston Group and Peter D. Hart Research Associates’ survey found that if 41 million travellers, or 100,000 travelers a day, opted out of a flight, that would translate to a “$26.5 billion loss to the U.S. economy, including $9.4 billion to airlines, $5.6 billion to hotels, $3.1 billion to restaurants and $4.2 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue.”

The Checkpoint of the Future

Though the carry-on problem has clearly escalated out of control, the Obama administration and consumer advocates are working to come up with solutions.

The first is a mock-up checkpoint introduced by the International Air Transport Association in Singapore dubbed “The Checkpoint of the Future.” If it were used, reported the Associated Press, “passengers would be categorized based on the results of a government risk assessment that is put into a chip in a passenger's passport or other identification.” In other words, eye scans would match the passengers to their passports, and help screeners separate the high- from low-risk travelers. 

Using this information, low-risk passengers would be allowed to breeze through security in minutes, while high-risk passengers would be asked to walk through a tunnel that performs a full body scan in order to check for explosives and other dangerous items.

The checkpoint struck U.S. Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole as such a smart idea that the TSA, in conjunction with Delta Air Lines' frequent-flier program, three other government-trusted traveler programs--Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI--and American Airlines' frequent-flier program, has agreed to test out a similar "known traveler" program beginning this fall. With the new program, much of the need for the full-body scans and pat downs that consumers find so intrusive would be eliminated, and it would certainly make the job of TSA agents much easier if they knew who they were targeting.

For its part, the U.S. Travel Association has called for a similar risk-based “Trusted Traveler” program to effectively “re-focus resources on the highest-risk passengers” and make it easier for frequent travelers.

Johnstone also notes that the TSA is testing technology that would help screeners determine whether an item is dangerous without having to remove it from the bag.

“At that point [the TSA] wouldn’t even have to impose limits because if it’s really soda or water then the size of the container won’t matter,” he says. “Because we don’t have the precision now [the TSA] has to worry about the volume [of liquid] and assume it’s dangerous stuff.”

Of course, Johnstone adds that there’s always the best-case scenario in which no terrorist attacks would happen and the TSA would have no choice but to scale back its regulations altogether.

“Security tends to be reactive, so if nothing happens it would be relaxed,” he predicts.

Let’s hope that he’s right--America has enough baggage already.

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