Should Overhead Bin Space Be Assigned to Individual Seats?

May 29, 2016

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TPG reader Peter sent me a tweet to ask about carry-on luggage:

“Do you think overhead bin slots should be assigned to seats?”

Boarding a commercial flight in the US sometimes reminds me of the Oklahoma land rush, since the competition to stake a claim to overhead bin space can be fast and fierce. To avoid checked bag fees, many passengers simply tote their bags onto the plane (or at least try), which can slow down the boarding process and lead to territorial disputes over where each person’s stuff belongs. One solution I often hear discussed is for airlines to assign overhead bin space to each seat, but there are a few reasons why I think that’s unlikely to work.

For starters, many aircraft simply don’t have enough bin space to accommodate an average piece of luggage from everyone onboard. Unless you decrease the maximum carry-on size, some people are still going to get stuck checking their bags at the gate. The airlines could sell discounted fares that don’t come with an assigned bin space (for people who are traveling light or don’t mind checking bags), but that’s essentially the same as charging more for seats that do come with bin space, and that doesn’t sit well with many flyers.

Another issue is that installing new bins would probably be too expensive, so you’d have to figure out a system for marking off space designated to each seat in the existing bins. Of course, delineating the bin space won’t do you much good unless someone is there to enforce the boundaries. Either gate agents would have to be ruthless about checking oversized bags, or flight attendants would have to step in and referee every time a bag crosses the line.

One more obstacle is that many airlines offer access to overhead bin space (via early boarding privileges) as a benefit of holding elite status or a co-branded credit card. It would be difficult to distribute bin space evenly without diluting those benefits, and I think airlines would be reluctant to do that when there isn’t a clear upside to the bottom line.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Assigned bin space might require lowering the maximum allowable bag size. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The simplest solution is to just get rid of checked bag fees. Airlines have incentivized the use of overhead bins because bringing bags on the plane saves people money; if the incentive goes away, then so will the high demand. Unfortunately for flyers, airlines are making a killing on baggage fees, and I don’t see them disappearing anytime soon.

I don’t blame people for wanting to sit near their bags. The odds of having your luggage stolen or damaged are low, but those things do happen, and people feel more comfortable keeping their carry-ons in sight. Of course, it’s convenient to have your belongings (or your baby!) nearby in case you need them, but you can usually fit the most crucial items in a smaller bag under the seat in front of you.

If you have any other questions, please tweet me @thepointsguy, message me on Facebook or send me an email at

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