The Case For Carry-On Empathy

It’s really easy to lose sight of the human element in today’s air travel experience. It’s generally rushed and miserable. With ludicrous fees nipping at your heels everywhere you step among a minefield of “gotcha” clauses in the Contract of Carriage, it’s no surprise that people are in a sour mood as soon as they check in. And this is before experiencing the TSA circus that is all part of the modern security theatre experience.

So, by the time that you get on the plane, I can appreciate that you’re really upset to be delayed even further by someone in front of you, struggling to fit their overstuffed carry-on bag into the undersized bin on the plane. “That guy,” you think, while possibly snapping a picture and making a snarky Twitter post with a hashtag of #CarryOnShame. This is the latest mean-spirited trend in the already angry world of travel.

Several times over the past four years, “that guy” could have been me. Until very recently, I was living abroad. Last year, I lived in 3 different countries around the world (China, The Netherlands and Costa Rica) and each time, I brought my possessions with me on planes. Before that, when living in Beijing, I’d only get to come home 2-3 times per year. I’d make massive Costco runs, bringing back whatever small comforts of home I could carry on and fit in my checked bag and carrying on whatever I could. Most recently, I took another flight, again using my full baggage allowance. After a long time away, I am starting a new life back in my home country, which has become a mean-spirited place that I sometimes barely recognize anymore.

Overstuffed luggage

Nearly everything I own is in these bags.

Yes, I’m that guy. The guy with a carry-on bag that I had to sit on in order to fit everything inside. The guy who is using 52 pounds of his 50 pound baggage allowance. The guy who stretches the definition of “personal item” into “whatever I can get away with.” It’s really out of necessity. Airlines do not have reasonable prices for extra or checked bags on international flights so let me make things completely clear: in practice, the choice I have faced each time has been either to be “that guy” or to abandon my stuff and start over. Start over even more than I already am, in a country where I don’t know where or whether I can replace my stuff. Sure, I chose to move, you might say. This is true, but I don’t choose to make things any more difficult. The Calvinist notion that people should have to struggle because… well, because… isn’t one I buy into.

The next time you see a person struggling with an oversized carry-on, trying to fit it into the overhead bin, have a little empathy. Consider stopping to help instead of pushing past or taking pictures to post on Twitter with snarky hashtags. Sometimes life just doesn’t easily fit into a small carry-on bag.

4 thoughts on “The Case For Carry-On Empathy

  1. Ben Whittaker says:

    Pray tell, what is a “reasonable price” for a checked bag? How about on Aeroflot? How about on a domestic ticket?

    You’re right in that passengers should have more empathy. You’re also right that in the right situations, rules should be stretched. But if you’re purposefully and consistently breaking the rules then you should reevaluate your packing strategy.

    Spud’s series is satire.

  2. TProphet says:

    Most airlines give you zero or one checked bag, and charge very high fees for additional or overweight bags. The weight limit has also dropped. Over the years, this has been cut back from a standard checked baggage allowance of 2 bags of up to 70 pounds in weight (or in many cases, 3 checked bags on international routes). If you are flying, for example, from Amsterdam to Costa Rica on United, you’ll pay $100 for the second checked bag, $200 for each additional bag, and up to $400 on top of that if the bag is overweight (which it very easily becomes when you’re moving).

    What is reasonable? This is a fair question. As a starting point, it shouldn’t cost more to check extra bags than it would cost to buy a second ticket and use the accompanying baggage allowance (and I will point out that airlines absolutely won’t let you do this to save money). Checked baggage fees are simply a profit gouge. Which airline is involved is a red herring because there is very little real competition between airlines when it comes to fees, with the exception of Southwest (which doesn’t apply on international routes) They have more or less copied one another in lockstep and often operate in “alliances” with harmonized fees across the alliance.

    It seems to me that the airlines have created a problem by cutting back checked baggage so much that it forces people to carry more on board, but instead of directing the backlash at the cause of the problem, it’s being directed at people who are just trying to get home–often from very far away. That doesn’t sit right with me, nor does the mean-spirited tone of #CarryOnShame.

  3. Kimberley says:

    While I see your point—that we should be more empathetic to fellow passengers who are likely enduring the same hassles of travel—your argument suggests that we tolerate rule breakers , like you. The rules are in place for a reason, to make travel comfortable and as hassle free as possible for all of us, including airline employees, who want to speed up boarding and travel comfortably. If you want your “comforts of home” in a place YOU chose to live, then pack less stuff, pay the fees without complaint, or ship it. Follow the rules. It’s pretty simple. If everyone packs 52 pounds for their 50 pound allowance, then the last guy on the plane won’t have space for his bags because you want peanut butter every morning.

  4. Colby says:

    My groans from boarding are from the persons who can’t get their own luggage in and out of the overhead bin. My rule of them is if you can’t lift it, maybe you shouldn’t bring it. Please don’t make someone else help you, yes people on-board may and most likely will help you, but you shouldn’t depend on it.

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