Everybody knows about the Jet Blue attendant who flew off the handle when he got hit in the head by a bag and had fights with passengers over stored carry-ons. And we know airlines are starting to charge higher fees for checked bags (and even carry-ons) which netted them over $700 million last year. This pushes more people to want to use carry-on bags, which we already wanted to save time, and that means more waits at security and more waits getting on and off flights.
I admit to being a heavy user of carry-on bags. For one thing I usually have lots of camera equipment with me which is too fragile to check unless I have bulky foam cases. Which they then might lose, and which means getting to the airport around 20 to 30 minutes earlier and leaving it 15 minutes later with several more bags. (And perversely, paying more on some airlines.)
The system is getting stretched. I’ve often thought about one useful solution, which would be standardized carry-on bag racks with rails. The standard sized bags would quickly slick in and click-lock in place. No doors even (except for aesthetics) and no fussing with overhead bags, or rearranging. Perhaps some small unstructured place on top or between for coats and purses and laptop bags but mostly they would go under the seat, or in the seat pocket. (Currently they are not permitted in the seat pockets but these could be strengthened and given a closure so the computer can’t fly out in a crash.)
Add to this a system of official gate-check racks. These racks would be there at the gate or in the jetway. If need be they would be mounted in a special elevator or forklift so that they can be quickly and reasonably gently inserted and removed in the cargo hold. These racks would include some rails for standardized bags (especially on puddle-jumper planes which can’t have as many overhead rails) and some amorphous sections with strong cargo netting. They would have shock absorbers to reduce shocks when they are put on the plane or taken out. You would place your items in these racks yourself — in parallel with other passengers, in a wide space where doing so is not blocking others — and the goal would be that you could put semi-fragile items, including things like cameras and laptops into the racks with full confidence. To help with this, we could have a camera on the wing which feeds the seatback screens so that passengers could watch this module as it is loaded and unloaded. This would do a lot to ensure that it is treated with care in a way that checked luggage often is not.
This works even better when you don’t have jetways, which is actually my preference in areas without harsh climate. As long as I personally put the bag into the box that goes into the plane, instead of a “gate check” where somebody throws it in, my fragiles do OK.
While I am not usually an advocate of surveillance, being able to watch checked luggage on videos might have some value. Imagine getting to the luggage carousel and seeing screens that show the bags moving through the transfer points on their way to the carousel, ie. the places where workers grab the bags and throw them onto belts and trucks. This could be live video, or looped delayed video of things like the plane being unloaded or the baggage truck being unloaded onto the conveyor. In addition, any place where the bar codes on the bags are scanned, the results could be shown, either the number from the luggage claim check, or or frequent flyer number, or an abbreviation of the passenger’s name or a profile nickname. In the event of an insurance claim, video could exist of the baggage handling.
It is an open question as to what this would do. One would imagine that workers would be nicer to bags if they know the passenger is watching, and this might reduce “United breaks guitars” events. However, I have seen them toss the bags even right in front of me after they take them. It’s a likely instinct if you do it all day and one presumes it is faster, even though it is something the owner of the bag would never do. It would take a lot to convince them to handle our bags the way we would handle them, and that’s why nobody trusts fragiles to leave their care.
It would be much harder to arrange video of your bag as it moves through an airport where you change planes, though they could do a lot with customized video streams where you enter your ID number and see the specific video of your own bags on your phone.
Getting back to the planes and the overhead racks with rails: Yes, this would require everybody to get a new bag. That’s one reason I have not proposed this in the past. But now that the bag cost is being broken out, the reality is that buying a new bag is a minor matter compared to the true cost of poor bag systems. Inserting and removing railed bags should be a lot faster resulting in getting on and off faster. If the slots were smaller they could even be numbered, but they can only be smaller if the hand-placed gate check system is in place. Of course, people could just ask for (or pay for, or get credit for not using) extra slots. Your boarding pass could say which slots are yours, including possibly a slot at the front for those who have two slots allocated. You would also know in advance if you had a slot or not.
(Here’s an idea I didn’t have when I started this posting. Screens at the luggage carousel showing the transfer points in the luggage transfer system, and a delayed video of any action that has been completed by the time they get there, such as the luggage unload from the plane, and the transfer from the luggage trucks to the belts. You could then watch your bags in transit, which would make you feel better, and see how people handled it, and have a video record if they mis-handled it for any insurance claims. And, in being watched, the crews would be more gentle with the bags