Standardized carry-on campaign confuses airline passengers

Canadians already find themselves confused about carry-on luggage size limits, which vary between airlines. Now, a new international campaign to standardize carry-on size appears to have created more confusion.

An international travel organization's push for a standard-sized carry-on bag has led to more chaos

The International Air Transport Association has introduced what it considers an optimal size for carry-on bags, but says the smaller size is not meant to be mandatory. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Canadians already find themselves confused about carry-on luggage size limits, which vary between airlines. Now, a new international campaign to standardize carry-on size appears to have created more confusion.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) initiative has led some to fear the travel association is pushing airlines to adopt smaller on-board bag size restrictions.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer organized a news conference on Sunday condemning the campaign. "I'm publicly urging the major airlines to ground any plans to reduce the size of carry-on luggage," he stated.

But IATA denies it's trying to shrink carry-on size limits. It says it simply wants airlines to give its new standardized IATA bags priority on planes overstuffed with on-board luggage.

Cabin OK campaign

Last week, the trade group that represents most of the world's big airlines introduced a standardized, optimal-sized bag for carry-on. IATA showed off examples at its offices in Miami. Measuring 55 x 35 x 20 centimetres, the bag is smaller than many airlines' carry-on size limits, including those set by Canadian airlines WestJet, Air Canada, and Porter. 

The new IATA bag, equipped with a special tag, will hit stores later this year. The organization said its smaller size was calculated to make the best use of storage space in an airline's cabin.

The initiative — called Cabin OK — is also supposed to make life easier for passengers by guaranteeing their bags will be accepted on board a partnering airline. Airlines across the globe have varying carry-on size requirements, and in this country alone, Air Canada, WestJet, and Porter all have different size restrictions.

"The passenger will know that if he or she buys this bag, they'll be able to take it on board a growing number of airlines," said an IATA senior vice-president, Tom Windmuller in a video statement.

"You don't need to be concerned about the size of the bag and whether your airline this week or next month will accept it."

The organization also stated that up to 40 airlines have expressed interest in the Cabin OK Campaign. So far, no Canadian companies are on board. 

More carry-on chaos

Even though the IATA campaign was created to relieve carry-on chaos, the announcement appears to have sparked more confusion. From passengers to politicians, people became concerned that IATA was asking airlines to claw back the size of its maximum carry-on allowance.

Schumer, the Democratic senator, went on the interview circuit, stating smaller carry-on regulations would force passengers to pay more to check oversized bags or spend money on new luggage to meet new requirements. 

"Let the passengers at least — there are higher fares, there are higher fees — not have this extra burden," he stated on Sunday in New York.

Passengers also became worried. Victoria Marshall says a customer came to her Toronto luggage store, Te-Koop, two days ago looking for a bag that would fit new carry-on size limits with Cathay Pacific.

"She said she was concerned because they had just signed [the IATA initiative] saying they would obey guidelines for [carry-on] to be smaller," said the store manager.

Marshall Googled Cathay Pacific and discovered that its regulations had not changed, even though, according to media reports, it had signed on with the Cabin OK program.

Carry-on clarification

In a later clarification statement, IATA stated that its initiative has been "misunderstood" by some and that it's not asking airlines to go with a smaller size limit.

It further explained that airlines signing on will not be shrinking their carry-on restrictions, but instead will commit to giving Cabin OK bags priority on planes that run out of room for carry-on.

"What we are trying to do here is give passengers an option to give them the best chance that their bag will not have to be checked at the gate because all the overhead bins are full, as is common on many flights today," stated IATA spokeswoman Mona Aubin in an email to CBC News.

IATA also said that its standardized bag is smaller than those set by most airlines to ensure it will be accepted by a wide number of airlines.

Too small for Canada?

IATA members WestJet and Air Canada told CBC News they have no plans to sign up for the Cabin OK campaign. And, so far, it doesn't appear to be sparking interest with passengers. 

Frequent flyer Robert Bracey said he recently encountered carry-on confusion when his Air Canada-approved bag did not meet the size limits of a connecting flight with a U.S. airline. So he had to check his carry-on, delaying him by 45 minutes in the Los Angeles airport to wait for his luggage.

"I had business people waiting for me and just had to wait and wait and wait. It didn't cost me money but it cost me some embarrassment," said the owner of the Toronto IT company Quartet Service.

Even so, because of its smaller size, Bracey isn't interested in purchasing a Cabin OK bag. He also doesn't believe it will fly with other Canadians because, at least in winter, it's difficult for us to travel light.

"It's cold here. A sweater would take up half that bag," he said.

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact:


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