Here's Why Your Plane's Overhead Bin Space Runs Out So Fast

Air travel often feels akin to stepping onto a battlefield. Apart from fighting for the best spot on the plane to get work done, there's the relentless struggle for securing coveted overhead bin space, unless you agree to the gate agent's insistence on gate-checking your bag. If you don't know the sneaky tricks to priority boarding, you'll often find yourself competing for the scarce spots in those bins. Sadly, this is the truth of modern air travel. Either overhead bin space vanishes before you can even attempt to fit your carry-on — or airline personnel, in some instances, misrepresent their capacity, claiming they're full when they're not. The underlying motive? Profit, of course.

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It's no secret that airlines operate on thin margins, leading many to design planes to cram more people in. Consequently, the finite overhead space decreases as the number of passengers rises. Even if you employ every tip in the book to avoid the never-ending airline baggage fees, you're sometimes left with no choice but to pay up. In 2023, airlines raked in a whopping $33 billion from baggage fees alone, according to consulting firm IdeaWorksCompany. So, the more passengers give in to these fees, the more money airlines make.

"Wall Street seems to love idea of incremental revenues such as luggage fees," George Hamlin, a commercial aviation industry veteran, told Fortune. And apparently, airlines — at least in the U.S. — are not mandated to shell out federal taxes on these fees. The result? More profits they get to pocket.

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Full overhead bins slow airlines down

In addition to maximizing revenue, airlines also face the pressing challenge of ensuring timely departures. We all know that placing bags in overhead bins, especially when they're incredibly packed, is just like playing Tetris, so airlines are trying to sidestep that by limiting the number of people who get to use the bins. The fewer people fight for bins, the sooner the plane can depart.

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"Those delays of a few minutes matter, because it can be the difference between some passengers making their connections and not. It can mean delaying the next flight," travel expert Gary Leff told The Washington Post. "They're really trying to get the plane out to keep its schedule, and not having to deal with carry-on bags is a key way of doing that."

What's more, a flight attendant who works for Delta Air Lines revealed to the outlet that if a plane takes off later than intended, the onus is usually placed on the gate agents. "They're the only department that gets penalized for that. It's a mark on their record, and if you get however many, you can get fired. So they're under a lot of pressure," they explained. In short, it's not like gate agents are trying to purposely inconvenience you if they gate-check your bag. They're just saddled with the responsibility of preventing delays. So, if they break the news that there's no more room in the overhead bins, well, tough luck.

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But some airlines have started introducing larger overhead bins

While it's still true that many airlines are in the business of nickel and diming passengers to earn more profits, some are finally listening to our collective gripes about the scarcity of overhead bin space. Some have even already begun introducing larger and better overhead bins to their aircraft to accommodate more carry-ons and minimize gate checks. In February 2024, United Airlines announced that it was introducing bigger overhead bins in 50 of its Embraer E175 planes, with plans to extend the makeover to over 150 planes by 2026. The end goal is to help a million frustrated passengers avoid gate-checking their bags on a whopping 150,000 E175 flights yearly.

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Southwest Airlines, which already grants passengers free checked bags with each ticket, went ahead and followed suit to improve customer experience. That same month, the carrier announced that it was rolling out new 737 MAX 8 planes with roomier bins and also upgrading existing MAX 8 and 737-800 planes to match.

It may only be a matter of time until other airlines follow suit to put an end to our frustration. In the meantime, if you want to make sure you get overhead bin space, secure priority boarding and choose your seat wisely. Otherwise, you can always simplify your life and just pack light with one bag.

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