Carry-on Case Reflects State of U.S. Airlines

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It's a case that is indicative of the state of the much-criticized American airline industry: Continental, which since 1995 has clawed its way from ninth to second in customer satisfaction surveys, is suing United, which has slumped from third to tenth in the same polls. At issue: those baggage-sizing templates that determine whether a carry-on bag is small enough to fit in the aircraft's overhead bins. In a federal antitrust suit filed on Monday, Continental alleges that United Airlines and the management company of Washington's Dulles International Airport have conspired to place templates reflecting United's carry-on limits at the airport's shared X-ray checkpoints, thus preventing Continental passengers from taking on board the larger carry-on allowance permitted by the Houston-based airline. Continental says its larger overhead bins and more generous closet space are instrumental in attracting passengers, and that United and the airport are preventing it from being competitive.

The suit is likely to be supported by an increasingly dissatisfied traveling public. Continental's jump in the national airline quality rankings has resulted from much-improved service, including its liberal carry-on rules. United, meanwhile, has slipped considerably over the same period, with passengers angered over measures like limiting carry-on baggage, which of course means a wait at a baggage carousel (presuming that the bags get that far). And it's not just a matter of consumer satisfaction: Airline analysts point out that United — which says it adopted the more restrictive policy because the amount and size of carry-on luggage had gotten out of hand — not only peeves passengers who want to tote their own bags but also reduces profitability because it has to hire more baggage handlers. When the stockholders work that one out, you can be sure things will change in a hurry.