Gate-checked again? Why there’s no room for your carry-on bags in the overhead bin

December 19, 2019, 8:30 PM UTC

Stowing carry-on luggage on airplanes is high-stress, zero-sum Tetris, sometimes with stakes perceived to be so high that they border on the absurd. Case in point: A March 2018 overhead bin battle sparked a fistfight on a Southwest Airlines flight from Dallas to Los Angeles, prompting the pilot to order every passenger off the plane.

And believe it or not, it could get worse.

The problem with carry-ons, for travelers and carriers alike, is that there’s a fundamental mismatch between modern baggage incentives and how air travel and airplanes have evolved. Planes were not designed for everyone to carry-on their bags, but the incentives make everyone want to.

People didn’t used to travel this way. But with with the installation of big overhead bins and introduction of hefty fees for checking luggage, travelers have been coaxed to stow their stuff above. Now, on tighter-than-ever flights, an increasing amount of passengers are finding their bags getting gate-checked—and tossed into the fuselage’s bowels, regardless.

The carry-on craze really started in the 2000s, when more and more airlines started charging for checked luggage, as well as installing first bigger shelf bins and then pivot or articulated bins, which Boeing (with supplier Heath Tecna) introduced in 2010. And even larger bins have been developed since then.

While the new bins are far roomier than standard shelf bins, there still is not enough space to guarantee stowage space for every passenger.

And the new hardware may have cut into airlines’ checked luggage fees, but it keeps critical customers—business travelers—happy.

“Business travelers want and demand larger bins,” says George Hamlin, a longtime commercial aviation industry veteran. “They don’t want to check luggage, and your bread and butter for almost all airlines is the business traveler.”

Bigger bins also helped passengers get on and off airplanes quicker, reducing flight delays, says Gary Weissel, a managing officer at Tronos Aviation Consulting who consults with airlines around the world on cabin interiors.

“A lot of the major U.S. carriers added articulated overhead bins, because they were (experiencing) delays,” he says.

But buying new bins is costly. Upgrading or retrofitting an aircraft with larger pivot bins can cost $750,000 to $1 million per plane, Weissel says. Also, pivot bins have moving parts which means higher maintenance and repair costs and are heavier. More weight equals higher fuel consumption.

And though the new overhead bins were conceived in part to cut down carry-on aggravation for flight attendants, they’ve had the opposite effect. For years, the country’s biggest cabin crew union, the Association of Flight Attendants, has pushed airlines to clamp down on the size and number of carry-on bags passengers can bring into the cabin, to “reduce risks of injury and conflict onboard the aircraft,” the union says on its website.

More fliers, more fees

Around the same time airlines started installing articulated or pivot bins, they also instituted and increased checked luggage fees. Introduced by U.S. airlines in the 2000s to cope with high fuel costs, and then again with the 2008 recession, the new charges exacerbated the overhead baggage crunch by encouraging passengers to pack less and carry their belongings with them.

Of course, more people fly today than did before the recession, with carriers having become much better about filling as many seats as possible on each flight. And more passengers means more carry-ons, says Henry Harteveldt, president of the San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group, which specializes in the global travel industry.

But airlines are also flying more single-aisle airplanes these days, which have less overhead space. Until a few years ago, some international routes were almost exclusively flown by twin-aisle jetliners, which have plenty of room for carry-on luggage. Now airlines can ferry passengers across the Atlantic in a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, whose lower operating costs are great for airlines’ bottom lines, but not for travelers looking to save on baggage fees.

Meanwhile, the cost of oil has since plummeted since 2008. Baggage fees, however, have only increased, generating billions of dollars each year for the industry, according to investment analysts who focus on airlines.

While fliers hate the fees, “Wall Street seems to love idea of incremental revenues such as luggage fees,” Hamlin tells Fortune. And with good reason: U.S. airlines don’t pay federal taxes on additional fees, unlike a fare increase, which is taxed.

The future of in-flight baggage fights

Ironically for the punch-drunk passengers of Southwest Airlines Flight 8 from Dallas to L.A., the only major U.S. carrier that doesn’t charge luggage fees is Southwest, which lets its guests check two bags for free. For Southwest, a better customer experience beats bag fees, says Brian Parrish, a spokesman for the airline.

The airline’s iconoclasm has not hurt its bottom line. It remains one of the most profitable U.S. carriers. Since its founding in the 1970s, Southwest is the only major U.S. airline that avoided bankruptcy.

And for better or worse, it appears that bins may go digital in the future. At 2019’s Aviation Interiors Show in Hamburg, Germany, Airbus showed off a bin with color-coded lights on the exterior: red for full, yellow for almost full, and green if there’s plenty of room. Diehl Aviation, which makes cabin interiors for Boeing and Airbus, also had its bookable-bin prototype on display. The stowage bin allows fliers to reserve a specific overhead space for their carry-on. Whether it is free or for a fee would be up to the airline.

Both products are still in development. If they do become available, Weissel says, it is not clear that airlines will want them, because they don’t help airline’s core customers—business travelers and other frequent fliers.

“For somebody like me, why would I spend extra money to reserve overhead space, when my status lets me board early and there is still lots of space available?” Weissel says.

Also, sorting out reserved overhead space could be more hassle than helpful.

Lastly, the new bins would add even more costs. “You’re adding electronics, lights, wires, and complexity that is going to require more maintenance,” Weissel says.

But like a descending flight, the future will arrive soon enough. Until then, travelers are advised to pack less stuff and stow their carry-on luggage, wheels-first.

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