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Carry-on Crunch Aggravates Safety and Security Hazards

Mon, Mar 29, 2010 — David Evans

Articles, Featured

No one knows better than flight attendants the safety threat posed by large luggage in overhead bins. Flight attendants are often involved in helping passengers struggle to stow items in overhead bins. Sitting in their jump seats, flight attendants have a full view of the cabin and witness articles falling out of overhead bins during routine takeoff, during in-flight turbulence, or during disembarkation, injuring passengers. In crash landing, articles from overhead bins are often hurled out, cluttering the aisles needed for emergency evacuation – not to mention that passengers often disobey instructions to leave their overhead bin articles behind and move immediately to an emergency exit.

Now the flight attendants have documented the hazard posed to themselves by luggage and other items crammed into overhead bins and secured – if that’s the word – by flimsy bin doors whose locks can pop open at the slightest disturbance. The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) recently surveyed a representative sample of its membership, and found that one out of two flight attendants witnessed carry-on items falling from overhead bins in the previous 60 days.

The survey validates anecdotal reports that the carry-on baggage situation is out of control, mostly due to recent fees to check baggage.

“We now have compelling evidence that flight attendants and passengers are being injured by excess amounts of oversized carry-on items, said Patricia Friend, AFA International President. She added that her organization has been urging “Congress, government agencies, and carriers to establish reasonable carry-on limitations that will improve overall safety, health and security of crew and passengers inside the aircraft cabin.”

Neither the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) nor the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regulate the amount of carry-on baggage a passenger may bring aboard, although the growing amount of such baggage poses a safety and security threat.

In 1996 the AFA reported as many as 4,500 passengers and 3,600 flight attendants a year are injured by falling carry-on bags. Certainly carry-on bags are one of the leading causes on on-the-job injuring to flight attendants.

The magnitude of the bin hazard is difficult to document, as the airlines are not required by the FAA to report injuries from falling baggage and, indeed, are reluctant to do so. The limited data that are available have resulted from enforced disclosures in court cases.

One case, in the late 1990s, disclosed that United Airlines experienced 462 incidents in its B757 aircraft over a three-year period from 1992-1995. At the time, United operated 92 B757s, which accounted for about 16% of its total fleet.

Extrapolating the 462 incidents to the entire United fleet yields about 900 incidents of injury from falling items a year. Assuming the same rate for other carriers yields a figure of some 4,500 injuries per year, or about a dozen injuries per day.

These statistics are outdated, obviously, with the advent of more airlines now charging a fee to check baggage. Passengers have been “incentivized,” as it were, to bring more luggage through airport security and aboard the airplane.

Smaller items may fit beneath seat, but the vast majority of larger items must be stowed in the overhead bins. Indeed, over the years, airlines have fitted their aircraft with larger bins to accommodate passenger habits. The variety of objects falling out of overhead bins and onto people is nothing short of amazing. Potted plants and framed artwork are among the more esoteric items. Heavy objects like luggage carts with casters (known as “wheelies”), briefcases and laptop computers account for most of the injuries.

Injuries include scalp lacerations, bleeding, neck and shoulder pain. The number of settled claims from passengers is estimated to be hundreds annually. Many cases have resulted in settlements that run into six figures. On the other hand, the airlines have beaten back many injury claims in court, saying they have complied with all FAA safety requirements (a logical non-sequitur, in that FAA safety requirements neither limit the carry-on baggage nor do much more than require all items be stowed, not stowed securely). While some juries have accepted the argument that FAA requirements have been met, it should be noted that the FAA has not prohibited the dangerous practice of stowing heavy objects into overhead bins where they are restrained by a single lightweight latch.

A great deal can be done to ameliorate the situation.

Passengers can be warned better of the hazards. Presently, after the airplane lands, the typical post-landing announcement states: “Please use caution when opening the overhead bins as contents may have shifted in flight.”

According to human factors experts, this announcement is inadequate, as it does not stress the nature of the hazard or its serious consequences. Further, the caution comes after takeoff and in-flight incidents with spilled luggage or items occurs. Passengers need to be warned before takeoff. For example: “Be particularly careful about opening bins in flight because falling objects may cause serious injury.”

A similar warning needs to be repeated after landing. These announcements can be reinforced with an explicit warning placard posted on the bin door.

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However, placards and warnings may be insufficient, as evidenced by the fact that flight attendants are involved in many cases of falling articles, and they were aware of the hazard and exercised caution before opening the bin doors.

In addition to more explicit warning, the bins themselves can be designed to minimize spillage. Some airplanes are fitted with bins whose floors slope away from the opening. Thus, even if the bin door pops open, or is incautiously opened by a hurried passenger, the contents won’t necessarily spill out. Nets, secondary barriers and a raised threshold at the bin opening are also available options.

Overhead bins with restraining nets installed behind doors.

Overhead bins with restraining nets installed behind doors.

What is not discussed is an option that would really secure the bins: electric locks on the latches, activated in the cockpit just before pushback from the gate. Passengers would not have access to the bins during flight, and the bins would be properly secured in such a manner that the bin doors would not burst open during turbulence or during a crash landing.

The bins could be unlocked after the flight, after the aircraft has taxied to the gate. This unlocking protocol would discourage passengers from jumping up and accessing the bins while the airplane is still taxiing to the gate.

None of these stratagems address the problem of large, heavy bags being awkwardly stuffed into the bins by passengers or by flight attendants trying to be helpful in the haste to get everybody seated.

A pristine view of overhead bin loading.

A pristine view of overhead bin loading.

Not to mention that all of these items brought into the cabin had to pass through TSA security. As in the case of the FAA, the TSA does not restrict the size or amount of baggage brought through security. Thus, while the FAA has abdicated its safety responsibility by not limiting the volume of carry on baggage, the TSA has abdicated its security responsibility. The security issue concerns the mass of articles that a security screener has to sort through on the X-ray image to try to pick out contraband. Added to this is the fact that it takes more time to sort through all of these images, which adds to the time a passenger has to spend in a security screening line. So, from a security standpoint, the screener’s job is made more difficult and adds to the probability that a screener will miss a contraband item; it is extremely difficult for a security screener to discern some of the possible disassembled weapons/bombs among the mass of items in some of the large bags sent through the X-rays (while at the same time passengers have to wait in line longer – a double negative: longer waits for more porous security).

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) introduced a bill in 2009 that would restrict and standardize the amount of carry-on baggage. Known as H.R. 2870, the “Securing Cabin Baggage Act” does not seem to have gained much traction. Introduced last year, the bill still has only six bipartisan cosponsors. Exemptions to the one-bag limit include:

— A safety seat for a child passenger.

— Wheelchairs, canes, crutches and so forth for disabled passengers.

— Musical instruments.

— Coats and hats.

— Cockpit and cabin crew in uniform (who already evidence a high degree of discipline about carry-on baggage, it seems from personal observation).

The bill would otherwise limit each passenger to one personal item and one carry-on bag. Neither item can be larger than 50 inches in total (22 x 18 x 10 inches). One does not know how this will materially restrict the volume of carry-on baggage, as the legislation basically allows for two large items. According to a number of security experts, passengers should be restricted to one bag, and it should be no larger in total dimensions than 45 inches. Even better would be a total size of 39 inches.

Simply said, fewer and smaller bags means less space to add stuff that confuses the X-ray image. Moreover, a great number of the one-bag items will be computers, which again means less space to add other things. Less and smaller carry-on baggage means a substantial reduction in the number of articles to be screened – and quicker times through the screening checkpoints.

Inside the airplane cabin, less carry-on baggage and smaller bags to boot reduces the loading in overhead bins that are burdened by the weight, a lowered possibility of bin doors popping open, and reduced injuring from straining to load heavy bags, and less danger to seated passengers of bags falling out.

Enforcing the 45 or 39-inch limit should substantially dent the accident statistics. That is, if the FAA kept any records on things falling out of overhead bins, which it doesn’t. Any injury requiring a visit to the hospital emergency room, stitches, an overnight stay in the hospital, or other criteria deemed sensible, should be a reportable event. As the FAA likes to say, it practices “data driven safety,” but on this item – injury from carry-on baggage – the agency has no data whatsoever. If it did, of course, the FAA would have to do something about the problem.

The present unregulated situation is one where both safety and security are compromised and the FAA and the TSA have shown themselves to be weak, irresponsible regulators.

Below, selected responses from the AFA questionnaire to its member flight attendants:

End the Carry-On Crunch! (AFA’s rallying cry.)

Carry-On Bags Survey Results

AFA-CWA recently conducted a random membership survey to determine the severity of the carry-on crunch inside the aircraft cabin. Below are the results from the poll which included responses from flight attendants at AFA-CWA represented carriers.

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