United’s Strict New Carry-On Baggage Rules Go Into Effect

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United put its new carry-on baggage sizing policy into effect yesterday, so we asked TPG Contributor Jason Steele, a Denver-based United flyer, for his take on the policy and its enforcement.

Better start measuring your bags!
Better start measuring your bags!

If you’ve flown on United Airlines recently, you might have noticed that they have deployed new carry-on baggage sizers at all of their gates, and even at many of the check-in areas. This is in conjunction with a new policy that was implemented systemwide on Saturday, March 1. Although there have been rumors online of this policy change for some time, it was confirmed by the UA Insider company representative on Flyertalk last week.

The new size limits as posted are:

Maximum dimensions for a carry-on bag are 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches (22 cm x 35 cm x 56 cm), including handles and wheels.

Maximum dimensions for your personal item, such as a shoulder bag, backpack, laptop bag or other small item, are 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm).

United's acceptable carry-on sizes.
United’s acceptable carry-on sizes.

However, those who have measured the new sizers find that their interior dimensions are one inch larger than advertised. In fact, UA Insider noted that “the sizers are indeed slightly larger than our published guidelines so that in-policy bags will comfortably fit in them.”

Also note that The following items are allowed and do not count toward your one bag and one personal item limit:

  • Jacket or umbrella
  • Reading material
  • Pet carrier (service charges apply)
  • FAA-approved child restraint seat
  • Diaper bag
  • Food or merchandise purchased in the airport
  • Assistive devices (collapsible wheelchair, cane, one set of crutches, medical devices needed to administer prescription medications, portable oxygen concentrator, etc.)
United's sizers are actually slightly larger than the dimensions listed.
United’s sizers are actually slightly larger than the dimensions listed.

What you need to know about the new policy:

  • All passengers may be required to place both their carry-on and personal item into one of the new sizers before boarding. Expect no exceptions for elite level travelers and those traveling in business or first class. Do not expect staff to be swayed by protests from travelers who have flown with their bags for decades and know that it will fit easily in the overhead bins.
  • United will collect checked baggage fees from passengers whose bags do not fit in the sizers. According to the United Hub web site: “Once they’re at the gate, bags that exceed carry-on size limits will need to be checked to your final destination, and will be subject to the standard checked-baggage fee.” Whereas United used to gate-check bags at no cost, passengers can now expect to be presented with the choice of paying for their bag or leaving it behind.

Why is this happening?

United is claiming that the new policy will “help everyone board a little easier.” It is true that United, like many airlines, has been lax in enforcing their existing policies, and that some passengers have exploited the lack of enforcement and slowed down the boarding process.

United says the new rules will speed up boarding.
United says the new rules will speed up boarding.

At the same time, the reason that people aggressively push the boundaries of the current policy is that United charges (non-elites and those without one of their co-branded credit cards) for checked bags at the check-in counter. Carriers like Southwest and JetBlue that allow checked bags for free are able to load their cabins much quicker.

Furthermore, these new limits are significantly less than that what will fit in an overhead bin. For example, the carry-on that I have used without a problem on dozens of flights since 2006 easily violates the new standard. Therefore, most observers are left to conclude that by implementing a new carry-on bag standard along with the policy of charging for gate checked bags is clearly done as a revenue-generating measure.

What are the potential problems with this policy?

  • This policy is poorly disclosed. United has a couple pages on their web site here and here, as well as a single, short post on Flyertalk. Otherwise, there has been very little news or announcements on this subject. Some travelers have received email announcements while others have noticed additional information when checking in online. So many travelers will be blindsided by this policy for months to come. Of course, this strict new policy seems counter to their current marketing campaign of “United Friendly.”
  • This policy may be inconsistently enforced. Like many United policies, not all of the employees and contractors are on the same page. It is entirely likely that gate agents might accept a carry on for the first leg of a flight, but reject it on the second leg. Over the weekend, as this new policy was supposed to take effect, some travelers reported strict enforcement, while others saw none.
  • Having each passenger place his or her bags in a sizer, and potentially have to see an agent to pay a checked-bag fee, will undoubtedly slow down the boarding process even more. Some passengers will argue the point with United staff, while others will have to take time to retrieve their valuables before checking their bag.
  • The new policy is inconsistent with their Contract of Carriage. Page 22 of the current contract states:

 

“Carry-on Baggage must not exceed the Maximum Outside Linear Dimensions of 45 inches (114 cm) (height + width + depth), which includes its wheels and handles, and may not be longer than 22 inches in any single dimension.”

Limiting bags to linear dimensions of 45 inches with a maximum single dimension of 22” is not the same as limits of 22 x 14 x 9 inches. For example, a cube of 15 inches on each side complies with the Contract of Carriage, while it would definitely not fit into the new sizer. The Contract of Carriage does specify that, “Carry-on Baggage or personal items suspected of being oversized may require being placed into a sizing unit to determine acceptability.” Nevertheless, it doesn’t define the dimensions of the sizer used. On a practical level, one could easily have a bag of 20 x 14 x 10 inches that meets the specification of Contract of Carriage, but fails to fit in the new sizers.

United actually sells non-compliant carry-ons!
United actually sells non-compliant carry-ons!
  • United actually sells non-compliant bags as “carry-ons”. For example, traveler can buy this Tumi Alpha Continental bag from United’s MileagePlus Awards Mall. It is clearly labeled “Carry-On” despite having outside dimensions of 10 inches in depth and 16.25 inches in width.
  • It is unclear whether or not United and their contracted gate agents will require the bag to merely fit in the new sizers or to easily slide in and out. With other airlines, I have had agents force me to check a bag that fit in their sizer without much effort, but was still deemed too large.
  • There have been reports of gate agents blaming the new policy on the FAA. It is not new that airline staff can erroneously blame their company’s policies on “FAA regulations,” but it should be obvious that the FAA isn’t forcing United to start charging for gate-checked bags.

Tips for navigating United’s new policy

  • Measure your bags now. Those with plans to travel on United should take out their tape measures and ensure that their bags comply with this new policy. The airport is not the time to learn that your bag won’t fit.
  • Focus on the 9. If you look closely at the baggage sizers, you will see that there are cutouts on either end of the 22-inch length for handles to protrude (but not wheels). Also, agents would have to bend over and put their head just a foot or two above the floor to ensure your bag doesn’t rise slightly above the 14″ long side. Nevertheless, your bag will obviously fail the sizer test if it violates the 9-inch dimension, which is 10 inches on the actual sizers.
  • Have a backup plan. Even when the dimensions of your bag appear to be compliant with the new policy, there is no accounting for the whim of gate agents under pressure to enforce this new policy who might find that your bag doesn’t fit easily enough, or that its handle is too large. Therefore, it would be wise to include a small cloth backpack or bag with your valuables, just in case you are forced to check your bag at the gate.
  • Examine the list of permitted carry-ons. United’s Contract of Carriage is filled with exceptions to the carry-on plus personal item rule. These include an overcoat or wrap, an umbrella, a reasonable amount of reading material, a camera, and a diaper bag. As long as they are enforcing their rules (and then some), passengers should be aware of all the permissible exceptions.
  • Use a United credit card to avoid checked baggage fees. United offers its Explorer and United Club cards that offer up to two free checked bags when you use them to purchase your tickets. These cards won’t keep United from damaging or losing a bag they force you to check at the gate, but at least you won’t have to pay for the privilege.
  • Vote with your wallet. If you don’t want to worry about being forced to check your favorite carry-on bag, you might just want to fly a different airline. At this time, most other carriers have little incentive to separate you from your carry-on, so long as it fits in the overhead bin.
The hard-sided CalPak will fit.
The hard-sided CalPak will fit.

Some suggestions for purchasing affordable, compliant bags:

Unfortunately, many will discover that their expensive carry-on or personal item needs to be replaced in order to comply with United’s new rules. Here are some suggestions for reasonably priced carry-ons:

  • Consider hard-sided luggage. I have long preferred soft side carry ones because they tend to be more affordable and because I could overstuff them a little. Unfortunately, this leaves too much up to chance when being forced to use a sizer.
  • Check out bags marketed as “International carry-ons.” Some foreign airlines have long held polices that were closer to United’s, so online retailers such as as eBags have a whole selection of carry-ons that meet this requirement. Many bags list a height of just 20 inches, but that often doesn’t account for handles. This CalPak KLUB 20 hard-sided, four-wheel spinner from is listed as 20″ x 13.5″ x 9″ and should easily fit in a sizer. It weighs 3 lbs, has a 3-year warranty, and costs $52.99 with free shipping. Thankfully, eBags frequently appears in online shopping portals. For example, the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal currently offers an additional 8 points per dollar from eBags, while shoppers using the American Airlines AAdvantage shopping mall will enjoy 5 miles per dollar plus a 10% discount for purchases over $49.
  • Visit discount stores. Great luggage doesn’t have to have cost a lot of money. I find some good deals at discount retailers in my area such as Ross, TJ Maxx, and Tuesday Morning. For example, I picked up a hard-sided piece from a company called CIAO that is compliant with United’s new policy and international carriers for $40. To my eyes, it is indistinguishable from many bags sold for $200 or more. Besides, since your carry-on bag will always be within your control, you don’t have to worry about it being tossed by a baggage handler or run over by a luggage cart.
  • Double check all dimensions. Bring your tape measure with you to shop for luggage, and double check any bag you order through the mail. Many travelers have found that their bags dimensions are inaccurate, or don’t include wheels and handles.

The bottom line is, the new policy is in effect, and it’s better to be prepared than get blindsided by having to pay a fee to check your bag at the gate. Have any of you flown United since the new policy went into effect? If so, were the agents enforcing the new rules?

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