Airlines Are Finally Adding Enough Overhead Bin Space for All Carry-Ons. What Took So Long?

Imagine not having to gate-check your carry-on due to full overhead bins. As more airlines install larger overhead bins, that vision could increasingly become a reality.

When airlines introduce shiny new or refurbished aircraft, they tend to tout the updated amenities, like new seatback screens, Bluetooth connectivity, or self-serve snack bars. While those are welcome benefits, let’s be honest—many of these newfangled features are meant to distract us from the extra rows of seats the carriers crammed onto the plane.

However, one of the cabin enhancements that benefits both the flying public and the airlines is revamped overhead bins. The latest next-generation compartments are larger than their predecessors and can typically hold the vast majority of onboard carry-on bags, even on fully booked flights—often by standing roller bags upright on their side, versus laying them flat on their back. It’s an innovation that stands to improve one major pain point of air travel.

After all, for years travelers in the United States have been fighting both fellow passengers and airlines (need we mention bag sizers at the gate?) for the right to store their carry-ons onboard. That begs this question: How did we, as a society, get to a place where our carry-on luggage didn’t fit in the overhead bins? And why have airlines made us play an intense game of luggage Tetris with our seatmates for all of these years?

The necessity for more carry-on capacity is, at its core, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Jostling for overhead bin space and gate-checking bags became the proverbial norm less than two decades ago. It’s easy to pinpoint exactly when it all went wrong. It was 2008, amid the Great Recession, when the major U.S. airlines—in a bid to stay afloat financially—began charging customers for their first checked bag (among other ancillary fees).

Left: A split image of United's new Airbus A321neo planes with the new larger overhead bins. Right: Rows of seats seen from the back.
From more bin space to fancy lighting features, the entire United flying experience gets an upgrade on the carrier’s new Airbus A321neo planes.

To avoid paying to place bags in the cargo hold, passengers brought everything but the kitchen sink into the cabin. This commenced an era, that continues, of passengers fighting to fit their carry-ons into overhead bins.

With more bags in the cabin than ever before, airlines had to deal with yet another problem: lack of space to fit it all. Gate checking came into play, which required passengers to hand over their carry-on to be stowed away, not to be seen again until they disembarked from the plane or, worse, collected their carry-ons at baggage claim at the final destination—forcing fliers to suffer through the endless wait at the baggage carousel.

Fast-forward to today. The spectacle of gate checking isn’t despised by just passengers; airlines hate it too. That’s because checking bags at the gate often slows the boarding process. When customers find out at the last minute that bins are full, agents must bring bags off the plane, often after passengers have already brought them on board.

While it’s a process that takes a few minutes, every second counts when it comes to delays and aircraft utilization, says Gary Leff, a travel expert and the founder of blog View From the Wing. “Do that with every flight, and you’re looking at delays that stack, along with missed connections.”

Installing larger overhead space seems like a relatively easy solution, but retrofitting planes and making the necessary capital investments were not a priority in the late 2000s and early 2010s. “Airlines weren’t going to make investments they didn’t have to, either right out of bankruptcy or as they attempted to forestall it,” notes Leff.

To add complexity, the process of having manufacturers design larger compartments and getting those designs certified by regulators can take years. Airlines are rarely willing to certify a cabin twice, so instead, they wait for when the cabin needs an entire overhaul (new seats, new technology, etc.). Alternatively, carriers may just hold off until a new crop of planes is delivered. “Basically, we got a delayed start to a process that is itself long, with airlines mostly aligning new larger bins with cabin refresh cycles,” says Leff.

One airline that has largely avoided the bin issue? Southwest Airlines. The Dallas-based carrier didn’t follow the other major U.S. airlines in implementing bag fees in 2008; each customer remained able to check two suitcases free of charge—and still can to this day. Even so, Southwest recently unveiled a plan to retrofit existing aircraft with new interiors, with larger overhead bins and new seats. Even though Southwest travelers can check bags for free, many are still on Team Carry-On due to the convenience and speed (you can’t lose a carry-on bag when it’s with you at all times, and there’s no waiting at the baggage claim post-flight).

“We found through research that gate-checked bags drastically decrease customer satisfaction,” a Southwest spokesperson told AFAR. The retrofit program is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2027.

Delta Air Lines, meanwhile, says that a “majority” of its mainline aircraft are equipped with larger overhead bins. Interestingly, the airline isn’t updating its soon-to-be refreshed Boeing 737-800 aircraft with more spacious bins. Instead, it’s installing “new doors to help accommodate larger bags,” according to a Delta spokesperson. In other words, Delta isn’t fully replacing aging overhead bins on its line of 737-800 aircraft during this refurbishment cycle. Instead, the airline is putting new doors on the old bins, which supposedly will accommodate some larger bags.

Besides delivering brand-new aircraft with more overhead space, United Airlines is updating existing planes with “United Next” interiors, adding seatback screens, advanced tech and, yes, refreshed bins. The carrier says that 75 percent of its fleet will be “new-generation” by 2030, with bins that let passengers load their roll-aboard bags vertically and have space to hold 60 percent more bags. More important, United says that every passenger should theoretically be able to fit one full-sized carry-on onboard.

However, more roomy bins are not a panacea, says Leff. “Even where bins are in theory large enough to accommodate a full-sized carry-on bag per passenger, it doesn’t always happen.” That’s because passengers still need to be educated to turn carry-ons on their side, and sometimes they’ll put up more than one item per person. Most airlines allow for one carry-on and one personal item, and while the personal item is supposed to be small enough to fit under the seat, some fliers will stow that personal item, or accessories like coats and gear, in the overhead bin.

Also, gate agents may require customers to gate-check even before bins are full. “They’re under a lot of pressure to get flights out exactly on time and not a minute late,” says Leff.

The bottom line is, if you want your carry-on in the cabin, make sure it fits underneath your seat (and not above it). While onboard carry-on capacity continues to increase as airlines deliver new and refreshed planes, there’s still no guarantee that your larger bag will make it up top.

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