The budget airlines’ luggage conundrum

Travellers heading on short-haul flights are increasingly placing their luggage in overhead lockers

Travellers heading on short-haul flights are increasingly placing their luggage in overhead lockers and not using the hold. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Standing at gate B26 of Nice airport, looking out across the sunny apron, I watched the French baggage handler loading luggage into the hold of the easyJet 9.50am departure for London Stansted.

I pondered how his job must have become somewhat easier in recent years with the majority of short-haul passengers carrying their own luggage on to the aircraft to store in overhead lockers.

So entranced was I, that I didn't really register the PA system announcement as I neared the gate until it was repeated.

It was an appeal to passengers to step forward and volunteer for their hand luggage to be placed in the hold.

This may have seemed an innocuous, polite request, though soon afterwards it was no longer a request but an order to the remaining boarding passengers that all hand luggage must now be placed in the hold (free of charge) because there was a lack of space within the overhead lockers.

Such requests are not 'one-offs' from the budget airline gate staff but are now being made more frequently.

Looking at this in more detail, it seems that the airlines – which have actively encouraged carry-on luggage to speed up aircraft turn-around times – have created something of a monster.

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And as the summer overseas holiday getaway gains momentum, some of those planning on 'travelling light' may not experience the carry-on convenience they had in mind.

Operators have forced the issue of carry-on baggage by charging up to an extortionate 50 euros to place a suitcase in the hold.

Consequently, passengers are taking smaller cases, packed in a way that does not impact on customs by adhering to small liquid allowances and opting for the convenience of the carry on option and the quick getaway it offers at the other end, as well as saving 50 euros.

The quick getaway has been important because some airports, notably Gatwick, have had a dreadful record on unloading hold baggage recently. I have waited up to 90 minutes for hold luggage to be off-loaded at Gatwick.

But the decision by easyJet to offer passengers the option of putting hand luggage in the hold – to help them out – is potentially divisive.

What must those passengers who have paid 50 euros for their suitcase to be stored in the hold be thinking when the passenger sat next to them may have their case stored in the hold for free?

And also, should easyJet actually be paying passengers 50 euros if they help out by agreeing to have their luggage stored in the hold at the last minute to assist the airline?

It is a conundrum, but a valid question as having your carry-on suitcase unexpectedly placed in the hold can impact on travel plans, especially if people have tight onward transport connections.

I'm sure easyJet, or other budget airlines, would not be too sympathetic to paying out yet would be quick to charge for hold baggage at other times.

What the change also saw was passengers having to take fragile items out of their hand luggage such as laptops, phones, and other breakables, and left clutching those items in their arms as they made their way to the plane.

And for airlines, their approach to speed up departures is now slowing getaways down, and irritating passengers.

Having coerced passengers into placing luggage in overhead lockers, to speed up departures, the airlines are now inconveniencing travellers by offloading locker luggage into the hold.

The luggage issue is becoming the car-parking space row of the skies, a mad dash for the space.

Some of the cases thrust above have become quite large and heavy, inevitably posing a risk to other travellers when heaved up or dragged out of the lockers.

And when there is no space above the corresponding seat, the case is often jammed in elsewhere on the plane leading to a scramble for it upon landing to grab the case and go against the flow of the disembarking queue.

There are also those who like to sit assuredly in the gate area and let the boarding queue subside before making their way on to the plane for their seats. The premise is that their allocated seat will still be available when they board.

However, what may no longer be available is space to place their case in the overhead locker and they may face the inconvenience of having it conveyed in the hold.

Travelling by budget airline is no longer the predictable scenario it is made out to be as it seems airlines are not able to cope with the demand for on-board overhead locker space after all.

It will also mean more work too for the French luggage handler, left to nonchalantly throw more cases than expected onto the conveyor and into the hold.