Why More Airlines Are Starting to Charge for Carry-On Bags

Updated: Feb. 22, 2023

Aviation officials say carry-ons bottleneck onboarding, affecting on-time rates and causing budget-busting delays.

carry on bag woman airplaneMangpink/Shutterstock

Confined to a cramped seat for hours with just a tiny bag of pretzels and ginger ale to appease you, the last thing you feel like doing when you get off a plane is wait around for your bags. The easy option when traveling has been to limit yourself to a carry-on suitcase and pray it fits in the overhead bin. Not only does it get you out of the airport faster but it’s also free. Not any longer. Recently, some airlines are starting to charge for carry-on bags, and travelers aren’t at all happy about it. Packing light might not be an option anymore when looking for tips to get the best airfare possible.

Some smaller airlines such as Frontier and Spirit—now JetBlue Spirit airlines—have always charged customers for carry-on bags, but now bigger name airlines, such as United, are starting to do it too. Case in point: When you purchase a Basic Economy ticket through United you’re not allowed a full-size carry-on bag unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member. Should you forget to check your bag before security and bring it all the way to the gate, not only will you pay the checked-bag fee, but you’ll have to pay an additional $25 gate handling charge. Not the best way to start off a trip. Don’t miss these additional things airlines don’t want you to tell you—but every flier should be aware of.

You might assume that the new carry-on bag guidelines are due to space limitations in the overhead bins, but it has more to do with on-time rates. Aviation economics expert and senior vice president of ICF Aviation Samuel Engel told Vox that the biggest bottleneck when it comes to boarding is carry-on luggage. For every minute a plane isn’t in the air, it’s losing money. A delayed departure makes the flight crew look bad (they can get written up for it)—and passengers very angry.

So, the next time you fly, plan to check your bag before security, pay a bit more for your ticket so you are allowed a carry-on, or try rolling a week’s worth of clothes into a backpack, a still-allowed “personal item.”