Overstuffed carry-on bags are causing a serious safety hazard, say flight attendants

Watch your head
Watch your head
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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When it comes to air travel, we’re living in the age of the carry-on. More and more airlines are rolling out basic economy tickets, while more and more travelers are stuffing as much as they can into their carry-on luggage before they board the plane.

This raises a safety issue: Heavy bags can cause injuries, particularly when they fall out of overhead bins and onto people’s heads—particularly during the baggage shuffle that occurs before and after takeoff. Most frequent fliers can probably attest to witnessing or being involved in a near miss or two over the years.

In 2017, a passenger on an Air Canada flight sued the airline, claiming it had a responsibility to mitigate the risk of another passenger dropping a bag on her head. A US court agreed. But while it may be a minority of passengers who meet the same unlucky fate, flight attendants are acutely aware of the risks that carry-on bloat causes on board an aircraft.

In fact, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), the union that represents the profession in the US, has been lobbying on the issue of “carry-on crunch” for decades. They say the no-checked-bag era has made things demonstrably worse. According to Sara Nelson, AFA-CWA’s international president, the organization thinks that regulation and enforcement can’t be left up to the airlines.

“Excess bags in the cabin lead to injuries, slower boarding times, and passenger altercations. Flight attendants manage these safety issues often under the pressure of on-time departures and during a critical period for ensuring the overall security of the flight,” Nelson told Quartz. “AFA continues to urge Congress and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to establish standardized carry-on limitations in the interest of crew and passenger safety.“

One of the obstacles in getting this safety issue addressed is that there is little data to track how often it occurs. Spokespeople for the FAA, Transportation Safety Administration, and National Transportation Safety Board each confirmed for Quartz that their agency does not track or hold any statistics about injuries caused by cabin baggage in the US. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 280 member airlines, doesn’t do so globally, either. IATA also declined to comment on whether or not it is responsibility of airlines to further protect passengers against the risk of falling baggage.

One commonly-cited statistic—included in a 1997 Wall Street Journal article which quaintly describes an era of air travel where “boxes of wine, bowling balls, boom boxes, [and] jars of jam” were things you could take in the cabin—says 4,500 incidents (PDF) happen in the US each year. But even that figure was limited by the fact that airlines aren’t required to report these injuries to authorities. What’s more, passengers might not even realize they’ve been seriously injured until they get home.

In 2010, the AFA-CWA conducted a survey of more than 1,200 of its members regarding the issue of carry-on-induced injuries. Nearly half of respondents said they’d observed a passenger being struck by an item falling from an overhead bin in the previous 60 days, while 35% of respondents had been struck themselves. Furthermore, 80% of respondents who’d been struck said they did not report their own injuries to the airline they work for. Respondents cited the fact that “reporting injuries and taking time off for a … [compensation] claim also puts disciplinary points in the flight attendants’ record. At a time when jobs are hard to find … it is better to just not report.”

The FAA told Quartz that while they do not track incidents or injuries caused by carry-on baggage, they do approve the carry-on requirements put forth by individual airlines. But as the AFA-CWA points out in the aforementioned survey, while many airlines may regulate the number of bags brought on board, few actually keep tabs on the size and weight of those bags. (That said, low cost carriers like Norwegian Air are now known to do this.)

As one respondent to the AFA-CWA survey put it, the carry-on era has created a self perpetuating cycle, one that potentially puts both fellow passengers and flight attendants at risk. The more airlines charge for baggage—the more luggages will likely wind up in airplane cabins potentially causing even more in-flight injuries.

“Flight attendants’ focus on safety and security of passengers during boarding has been shifted to handling passenger carry-on items: repositioning, bringing bags to the front of the aircraft and giving the passengers a free checked-bag opportunity, which encourages them to keep repeating it, instead of checking the bag and paying at the ticket counter, thus making a mockery of airline policies.”