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Airline baggage solutions


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


Every valuable innovation dies on the lance of liability. What happens if a bag rips open and the contents spill on someone and create a harm? Your fault or the airline's fault? What happens if a bag has not been properly inserted into the rails and falls off?

I wouldn't mind having to buy an airline bag if it spared me from watching the idiots try to pack their slightly-too-large bag into a slightly-too-small space.

Best implementation, I think, is to take the standard rolling carryon bag, and slap two extruded aluminum rails onto the side of it, so that it still fits into a standard airline compartment. Then, establish a sunset date for random carryons. As of YYYYMMDD, all carryons must have rails, and you're only allowed one. As of that date, airlines can start removing the doors, and putting in the rails.

You mention both rails in the overhead lockers and special containers in the cargo hold... which matters more? The overhead rails strike me as iffy, since you're quantising capacity that normally gets wedged very tightly with junk. And there's not a lot of it, say one seat length per row or 90cm split 3 ways - less than 30cm per person. So your overhead-rail carryon is going to be (say) 28cm wide, 50cm deep and 20cm high. Just enough for one big lens in a soft-ish case.

Or they go in the hold. How much would an air cargo container fitted with those rails cost? And how much extra space would it take up, since you've just quantised the capacity? How likely is it that they'll be able to jam random bags into the unfilled slots? I'm guessing you'd get about half the usual capacity by the time you account for partitioning and partial fills.

I'm less fussed about what it costs you for a new bag, and more by the extra infrastructure. Heathrow are still trying to make their baggage handling work, so adding anything that all that has to integrate with it is high risk. The little I know of those things makes me think I wouldn't want to go anywhere near the software, let alone the implementation of the hardware (but what's another few thousand video channels between friends?) How fast does it have to be split, tagged and made available? Do we really have to allow seeking and fast/slow playback for each stream? Oh, and you want to archive and search this video for how long? To evidential security for the insurance companies or just highly compressed to junk disks that will probably not fail most of the time?

But wait, I just saw someone interfere with the bag I loaded oh-so-carefully onto the cart... quick, let me off the plane, I can't travel without knowing that my xylophone is undamaged!

I'm wondering what the actual advantage is, since it seems you've just added another layer of baggage - we now have cabin baggage, checked baggage and your special quantised checked baggage. Wouldn't someone that concerned about it either buy first class tickets for the extra luggage allowance or buy an extra seat for their case? I suspect the price premium is lower for the latter course.

I think the "let me off, I have to check my bag" problem would be the real killer. Bad enough having to live stream video to every seat in the plane while you're docked, having to deal with panicked reactions to the stream would be the absolute killer.

Yes, I know these sit in the way. One solution I was thinking of was to have some simple, light boxes with the rails at the gate, so those with odd sized stuff can put it in those, even share those with seatmates (airlines should have numbers on the carpet at boarding time to help you find your neighbours) and then leave them at the destination gate.

So the question is, is the quantization issue offset by the standardized and sped-up loading. There is not enough space for everybody to have a 22" roll-aboard, but might it be better to know in advance if you are going to have a slot for yours or not? If not, you would take out your necessaries and put them in a shared one allocated to you near your seat, and put your roll-aboard in the gate-check rack.

The gate check rack, while it would have rail slots, would also have unstructured areas and cargo net areas to take things of different size. I get the impression that usually there's plenty of space below for holding what would normally have gone overhead.

As for safety, we could keep the doors, it just seemed it would be an interesting saving to not need them. I didn't mention another problem, which is airlines must standardize, though it's also possible to design rail systems which can support more than one size of bag if you do it right. It might even be possible to design some sort of more generic grasping system which does not have rails that come up. For example, at the cost of space in the bag, the system could just have raised rails every few inches and each bag must have a slot at the same interval.

As to the video system, I don't see this as all that hard or requiring that many channels. Not every luggage carousel is in use at once, but even if they are, you only need a few channels per luggage carousel, that's nothing too grand. The loading channel at the gate would be short-range, just to the gate. People can already see this out the window of the gate or often the plane window (Thus "United breaks guitars") anyway.

But I think you just have a hard answer to "let me off, I have to check my bag," which is "certainly sir, we'll delay the plane for you for $1,000 per minute, otherwise our baggage dept. will review the video with you at your destination and compensate you for any error on our part."

My family doesn't fly much, but when we do, I find that I'm attempting to minimize the number of checked bags to avoid extra fees. I also try to pack more into larger carry-on bags, which can be difficult and time consuming to cram into the overhead bins.

I wonder if paying by the pound for all baggage, checked and carry-on, would help?

I wouldn't have to spending any time weighing my luggage and there would be fewer reasons to carry-on more luggage.

People would still carry-on items for convenience and security.

Just a thought,

adding.... long as they don't get the idea to weigh *me*. :-)

The problem is passengers in general.

The problem is the biddy in 24C who slowly, slowly edges her way along the aisle, flinching at every brush against the seats on either side, then finally gets to her row. She fluffs out her coat, preparing to address the situation. She sets her handbag down, carefully perching it right in the middle of the seat. She fumbles with her coat, getting one arm off, wrapping everything carefully around, taking out the other arm.

Then she puts the nicely-folded coat up in the overhead bin.

Then it's time for the purse. She gets out her book. She puts it on the seat. She gets out her reading glasses. She puts them on the seat. She gets out her special earplugs with "Airline Approved" on the package. She puts them on the seat. Out comes the water bottle, snack crackers, gum, all of it.

THEN the purse goes in the overhead.

Finally she's ready to move into the seat. She turns around, carefully aligns herself with the seats, and then sidles in.

And finally we're able to move past her.

You ask why the coat and purse aren't under the seat in front of her, and she looks at you a blank-eyed cow-like stare as though you'd asked her to derive the quantum wave function in eleven-dimensional space.

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