Ban the Bag?

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Bag-Banning: An Idea Whose Time Has Come? Americans are ready to accept their soldiers going to war, their government wiretapping their phones, and even shelling out a couple hundred bucks for gas masks for the whole family. But can they part with their wheelies?

Some airline industry veterans think it is exactly time for that drastic action. Government officials are apparently looking at trimming the heavy loads that most people lug with them on board, including those bulky suitcases-on-wheels known as 'wheelies.' Given the long lines that have sprouted at screening points at many major airports since the airlines were let back into the air on Sept. 13, government officials are considering rigorously imposing a new rule that is essentially one 'real' carry on and one 'personal' bag such as a women's purse. Officials want to lessen the burden on screeners and remove a potential threat of passengers carrying on weapons.

Expect a huge outcry from the major airlines, which created the problem in the first place. When is the last time you checked a bag that you weren't forced to? That's because people don't trust that their bag will end up in the same airport on the same day they do. And airline gate agents rarely challenge the size of anyone's carry-on because they want to get paying passengers on the plane with the least amount of friction. Statistically, lost or delayed bags aren't that large an issue, but the mental anguish of being without your toothbrush or even more intimate items is severe for some passengers.

The new 'one-plus' formula was in action this morning when Washington's Reagan National Airport reopened--the last major facility in the country to start flying again after the Sept. 11 shutdown. The airport, which is operating at only one fifth its capacity for the time being, is mostly a business-oriented airport, doesn't usually attract the overstuffed-suitcase crowd in any case.

As the morning sun broke through, though, there were plenty of wheelies in evidence amongst the few passengers that did show up at National. Some of them did a remarkable thing: they voluntarily gave up them up. Most said they had heard about the new restrictions at National and wanted to go along. "I'm doing my patriotic duty by flying today, and I wanted to check my bag," said Monya Shannon, a judicial assistant who was headed for Chicago. "I don't mind at all." Of course most of the people who ended up checking their bags were either women traveling alone or a couple that included a woman: I saw several male road warrior types who strolled right to the gate with their bulky cases squeaking along beside them.

There is at least one powerful industry group backing the government's idea of lifting the carry-on load. The Association of Flight Attendants has for several years been advocating for restrictions on carry-ons. "The amount of stuff people haul around with them is overwhelming the new security system and slows the boarding process," says Pat Friend, head of the AFA. "It's time to put strict rules in and abide by them."

If major airlines complain a one-bag rule will be too difficult, tell them to call Ryanair, the low-cost, European airline that is already using a new system. According to Jef McAllister, Time's London Bureau Chief, who flew the carrier recently, it's a welcome change. Last weekend McAllister took Ryanair from London to Brussels and on the outbound leg had to follow a rigid one carry on bag per person rule (and no big ones). On the way back, things go more serious: there were no carry-ons allowed at all. "I had to check my computer bag, the first time I have ever done this," said McAllister. "I was only permitted a book, which was x-rayed." A woman with a baby was allowed 2 diapers, a few wipes and a couple of bottles.

Was McAllister angry? On the contrary. "Except for babies and people who need medicine, I actually like this policy. Very clear, very quick, much safer. And just think: we road warriors can go back to watching the movie, rather than pounding away on the damn keyboard." And if U.S. airlines claim — as they likely would — that such measures will raise ticket prices: Just remember, they claim that about almost everything. McAllister paid about $38 for his trip.