Can Boeing’s Bigger Overhead Bins Cure the Carry-On Bag Blitz?

In an era when checked luggage rarely flies free, the quest to find new ways to fit more stuff into the overhead bins has become like the search for the Holy Grail. Now Boeing (BA) believes it has a breakthrough. The company’s so-called space bins promise to accommodate a half-dozen standard roller bags on a 737, two more than the current “pivot bins” used on Boeing’s newer models.

Boeing says the new bins will accommodate 194 bags on the largest version of its 737 model, 62 more than the current bins. “With a lower bin lip height, Space Bins provide increased visibility into the back of the bins and make bag loading even easier,” Boeing said in a statement. The new bins will be equipped on 737s in mid-2015, with Alaska Airlines (ALK) the first Boeing customer to use the new bins. They can also be retrofitted to older 737s, Boeing’s top-selling model.

Courtesy Boeing

New Boeing overhead binsCourtesy BoeingNew Boeing overhead bins

It’s not just harried travelers who crave more bin space—airlines, too, are eager to fit more bags overheard. The rush to claim precious bin real estate creates a bottleneck that reaches all the way back into the boarding area. The scramble for suitcase space has created its own lexicon of misery, including the memorable term “gate lice.”

It all started with checked-bag fees—American’s inaugural price of $15 just six years ago seems almost quaint today—and now millions of travelers lug bags on board. That in turn has led airlines to become stricter about checking larger bags at the gate to prevent the overhead scramble from slowing boarding and causing late departures. The three largest carriers—American (AAL)United (UAL) and Delta (DAL)—require all bags larger than 22x14x9 inches to be checked as cargo.

New Boeing overhead bin sketchCourtesy BoeingNew Boeing overhead bin sketch

Travelers who have adjusted to our cramped age might be surprised to find that it wasn’t always so. The space over your seat was once thought of as room for your head, not your clothes. In the early 1950s, Boeing’s 377 Stratocruiser was the pinnacle of “luxury” travel for the era, with a lounge and bar area on its lower deck. The plane was flown primarily by Pan Am across the Atlantic and to Hawaii. Overhead bin space wasn’t an issue on a Stratocruiser because there were no bins.

From the perspective of a cost-obsessed modern airline, however, the luxury of headroom just looks like an incredible amount of wasted cabin space.

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