Who Does the Overhead Space Belong To?

Yesterday I wrote Tips to Avoid Gate Checking Your bag.

Some of those tips were controversial.

This, especially, drew fire:

Once on the plane, take any space you can find don’t wait until you get all the way to your seat if you’re in the back of the cabin. You might get glares, but there may be room in the first class bins and that carries the added benefit of your not having to schlep the bag all the way to the back and also that it’s already near the front of the plane when you’re ready to disembark.

Here’s what Gary Steiger wrote:

I hate it when I just make it into my business or class seat when connecting from another flight, only to find that the overhead bins are full from cattle class flyers taking it. I think your next to last advice is very selfish. I am surprised by it, as you usually fly business or first and would like your bin space, too.

beltway commented:

No. Y pax should not stow bags in F, ever, unless the FA expressly directs them to do so.

Bear with me though. In the post I was talking about when the plane is mostly fully boarded and you’re one of the last to board just trying to find a space to put your bag overhead. I wasn’t meaening to suggest, heading back to your coach seat in the middle of the boarding process when there’s still overhead space left, that you just take up bin space at the front of the cabin. All things equal I’d prefer to have my carryons near me in any case.

That said, I think this raises an interesting question and I’m not sure I know the answer to it.

Whose bin space is it anyway?

Each passenger is entitled (Spirit notwithstanding) to one carry on bag and one personal item. The personal item is supposed to go underneath your seat (that’s your “primary storage area”).

That suggests that you should be able to put your carry on (that fits within proper dimensions) into an overhead bin. And in practice, it just means that your boarding pass is a ‘license to hunt’ not an entitlement to specific bin space. After all, if each passenger had designated bin space there wouldn’t be an issue of gate checking at all.

There’s not enough bin space to go around on most aircraft if the plane is full and everyone brings on a bag. Therefore no one is entitled to specific bin space.

But are they entitled to hunt in a specific area? Is it a violation of a rule, or an unwritten norm, to hunt in another area?

Is the space above your row — and only your row — yours? It generally overlaps with other rows, and it isn’t big enough.

Is it ok to use the bin in front of or behind that one? What about the bin on the opposite side of the aisle?

Is it ok to use the first bin you find in your ticketed cabin?

I’d argue that it’s probably not ok to take the bin above a bulkhead row if you aren’t seated in the bulkhead, because whomever is in those seats doesn’t have floor storage space and has to stow not just a carry on but also their personal item up there as well.

If there are unwritten rules, how do passengers know them? Especially infrequent flyers? And if infrequent flyers aren’t going to follow those norms, are they actually norms at all — ones you’re supposed to follow but they won’t — doesn’t that put you at a disadvantage?

Is overhead bin space a war of all against all?

In some sense the real problem here is that in a world of (1) full flights and (2) checked bag fees there are a lot more rollaboards being carried onto the plane than ever before — even compared to 14 years ago when you used to be allowed to bring on two, not just one. And since the space on most aircraft hasn’t grown to accommodate this, there’s too many bags chasing too little space.

And my primary advice, of course, was to strategize to ensure you aren’t one of the last passengers to board a mostly full flight.

But I’m genuinely interested in what people think on this — what bin space is a passenger entitled to use, and what empty space should a passenger not take (going so far as to gate check their bag rather than use it)?

At what point during the boarding process does this change — if you’re in the last minutes of boarding can you take any space at all, even if it would violate the norms during the beginning or middle of boarding?


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Stricter rules need to be in place I think. All through Australia and Asia there is never an issue with hand luggage. Only in LOTFAP is there a problem.

  2. Since the first class passengers will have long boarded and stowed their luggage by the time the last coach passengers have boarded, I don’t see any reason they shouldn’t use the first class overhead bin space if the alternative is gate checking.

  3. If you want to use space not adjacent to your seat, just ask the flight attendants. They know in a glance if they are going to need it.

  4. @Gary Steiger
    You may not like it when you find your business class overhead bin full with bags from those fliers in “cattle class”. Well, I hate it when I just make it into my business or (sic) class seat when connecting from another flight, only to find someone sitting in my favorite seat who probably is flying upfront using their ff program’s miles. It’s usually those fliers who are the most demanding and critical of others. You’re attitude, Gary is what gives users of frequent flier programs a bad name.

  5. I think if all the first/business class passengers finished boarding and there is still space left, then it would be ok to put a bag in F/J overhead bin.
    But the only way to check would be asking the FA or if all the seats are taken.
    Overhead bins are really for the passengers in that specific cabin.
    Otherwise, airlines would not have removed the center bins in the premium class.

  6. I’ll worry about using first class cabin overhead space when FAs start enforcing personal items coming out of full overheads and going under seats. The airlines make many first class benefits clear – seat, boarding time, lav access, meal service. If they want private overhead space bundled in they could make that policy much more explicit.

  7. I’d say you’re free to use the space above any row where the passengers in that row have already taken their seats. If they needed that space, they would have already used it. Especially if you are near the end of boarding, with the likelihood space above your seat being open is slight.

    But using the space above a J or FC row with empty seats, when you don’t even know if there is room above your seat in Economy, seems out of line.

  8. @Captain – I do not think it’s a matter of a bag being too large (if it’s within regulation size set by airline policy) but that with everyone else trying to bring on a bag and planes full there’s not enough space left for the people at the end of the boarding process.

  9. It’s really only an issue in narrowbody jets since widebodies usually have 2 jet bridges or at least board from a center door. In that case, economy pax aren’t even allowed into the forward cabin(s) at all–for any reason.

    I agree with Gary… if all F pax have boarded and are in their seats, there’s no harm in putting your rollaboard in the F bins as long as you don’t need to grab it during the flight.

  10. @Gary There wouldn’t be an issue of “not enough space” if the bags weren’t too big! If airlines enforced more reasonable bag sizes, everyone could bring one bag and one “personal item” (really a second bag) and everything would fit.

    My view is that bringing a huge carry-on bag onto a narrowbody plane is very rude. Some rollaboard bags are too big to go “wheels first” into the bins so they have to go in horizontally which means one bag is taking up the space provided for up to three people in coach. If one of those three then poaches bin space from a different row, that might not be super altruistic, but that person isn’t the original sinner.

  11. I think common courtesy must prevail among passengers. If my action to take space that isn’t roughly near my seating area is going to create hardship for someone else, I shouldn’t do it. If all the people in a row are seated and there’s still overhead space above, then that’s fair to use. This can be a zero-sum game, and victory should not go to the rude, the pushy, the selfish. I do think flight attendants have a role to play in controlling this. I’ve never had a big problem with gate checking a bag, by the way. If it’s just a bag of dirty clothing on my last flight of the day I may not have any interest in squeezing it into an overhead bin anyway. If I have to make a tight connection, then it matters more.

  12. This is where my family with four kids makes up for all of the other inconveniences we cause. We take up six seats and never bring carry-on luggage. So when you see my four year-old staring at you for no reason, just be thankful you probably won’t have to gate check your bag.

  13. When I am sitting up front and I see someone in Y put a bag and then walk back I make a note of it in case there is no space left for the people sitting there. I will gladly let the FA know that the bag belongs in Y if necessary since the bag was placed there right when the plane started to board.

  14. If you put your bag up front and you’re sitting in the back where you can’t see your bag, keep in mind that some people carry extra locks and will lock your suitcase if they see you.

  15. @Jason (comment number 4): perfect comment. Exactly what’s needed to be said esp considering so many up front people aren’t FFmembers in the truest sense.

    @Gary: I long for the day when airlines go back in time and get rid of overhead bins. Then flying would be a pleasure again. Check the bags and get over it. And tell us how YOU would react if many of the “unwashed” (Y class working stiffs) filled the overhead bins and YOU couldn’t put your bag into the overhead bin???

  16. Today I was in domestic (4+ hour flight) F and very early on a Y passenger puts his large carryon (one of three he had) confidently in the F space. He boarded group 2 on UA so he’s flown before. The back was totally empty. I took his bag out and rifled through it. Nothing of interest so I put it back just behind the bulkhead. Not kidding. Put your bag where you sit, people.

  17. Problem is they won’t gate check any more–they’ll check to final destination, i.e., possibly kiss your bags goodbye!

  18. @Gary: my comment wasn’t about overhead bins in premium cabins on international flights. I’m aware of that – I didn’t just wake up from under a rock. I’m speaking of domestic flights where boarding has folks passing through the first cabin. That should have been clear as day because as you surely (should) know, it’s physically impossible for coach passengers to “transit” first class – that’s always a “to your left” scene.

    @Ben: he must’ve been another of the entitled crowd. But what you did is as reprehensible as Gary’s advice was. Have some class – just alert the FA’s.

    The simplest resolution is to modify overhead bins to only fit a laptop, pocketbook or overcoat , or have a super strict carry-on policy with agents enforcing it at the gate.

  19. @ Gary: you neglected to comment on how you would feel if you lost out at “musical bins” considering your original advice to act like a honeybadger and take whatever space you wanted.

  20. I don’t see why it’s a Y versus F thing. Either you “own” the overhead above your seat, or you don’t, regardless of where you sit. Given current practice, it’s pretty clear that the passenger doesn’t own the space, and it’s a free-for-all. If I need the space, I’m boarding as early as the rules allow – I draw the line at boarding earlier than my zone/status would call for though.

    It’s pretty retarded that the airlines didn’t realize that this would happen with check-in fees. They should just start charging for total volume/weight like freight companies do.

  21. I don’t mind if there’s extra space in business/first but I really hate those in Y who doesn’t even bother to look in their area but shove their carry on at the first sight of empty space. International flights are it an issue as I’ve seen FA disallow Y passengers to out their carry ons in C, haven’t seen any Y or C passengers having to go past F seats in any of my flights.
    The other thing that bugs me is when the other person keeps coming over to take things in/out of the bag….

  22. Sitting in the bulkhead row of first class US air Phl #404to Phx and had NO where to put our bags, had to have the FA take them back to row 3 which really did make me angry, why should we be without access to our bags for this 5.5 hour flight due to somebodies laziness?why are they entitled to take my space???

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