Air Canada tries (again) to enforce its carry-on rules

Air Canada is prepared to crack down on your carry-on luggage. Will it work this time?

Bayne Stanley/CP

Bayne Stanley/CP

Air Canada is hoping a small red tag will help solve its current carry-on crisis: passengers seeking to avoid its $25 checked bag fees by carting overstuffed suitcases, backpacks and shopping bags onto its airplanes.

Starting next week, the country’s largest airline will begin strictly enforcing its rules on carry-on luggage at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, with plans to roll out the program to other airports across the country this summer. Airline staff will be stationed both at the gate and security checkpoints to remind passengers they’re only allowed two pieces of cabin luggage, the largest of which can’t measure more than 23 cm x 40 cm x 55 cm. Appropriately-sized items will be tagged as “approved carry-on baggage.” Passengers whose bags don’t make the cut will be sent back to the counter to check in their bags—and pay the $25 fee.

The move is designed to streamline the increasingly cumbersome boarding process as harried passengers roam the aisles searching for a spot to stash their belongings, instead of simply filing aboard and taking their assigned seat. Longer boarding times, in turn, raise the risk of costly delays—particularly when oversized baggage must be removed, tagged and stowed underneath—and means the airlines’ planes are spending less time in the air making money.

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Air Canada’s current carry-on problems can be traced to last year’s decision to follow rival WestJet by charging $25 fee to check a single piece of luggage on domestic flights. The fee, now charged by most major North American airlines, was already in place for passengers flying to the United States.

The impact of the airline industry’s move to charging for all checked luggage is being felt beyond airlines. In the U.S., the surge in carry-on luggage has been blamed for slowing down screening lines at airports. Some airplane manufacturers have even spent millions to increase the capacity of overhead bins.

WestJet, for its part, claims that its $25 fee hasn’t resulted in any delays because passengers have simply adjusted to the new rules. But airline on-time performance statistics are notoriously unreliable since the airlines set the schedules themselves and can easily pad them to take into account longer boarding times. A better indicator is probably the now-routine pre-boarding announcements urging passengers to volunteer to check their carry-on bags at the gate on many flights. WestJet is also planning to have staff roam departure lounges on full flights in search of passengers willing to check their carry-on bags for free.

What remains to be seen is whether Air Canada’s more heavy-handed approach will yield the desired result. The last time it instituted a carry-on crackdown at Pearson staff received an earful from angry fliers, many of whom had no idea their favourite carry-on exceeded the maximum size. Indeed, despite the claims of luggage manufacturers, there is no standard size for carry-0n items because the precise measurements vary from airline to airline.

If it all seems like a lot of extra work for airlines and their staff, that’s probably because it is. But unapologetic airline executives have done the math and determined that the billions now being raked in from checked bag fees in North America are worth the hassle and then some.

The only question now is whether passengers have become so frustrated with jammed airplane cabins that they will welcome the crackdown and and gladly hand over any extra fees to avoid further discomfort, as increasingly seems to be the industry’s business model. If not, both Air Canada and its customers could be in for an unpleasant summer.