Luggage industry shifts to softer, lighter bags

If your square-cornered, hard-to-bash-in luggage coming off the airline carrousel looks lonesomely outdated, it may be just that. Containers travelers carry clothes and other necessities in are taking on a new look.

According to luggage-industry analysts, 70 percent of current retail sales in the billion-dollar business are in the new soft-sides. This style - but without any of its present strength and pizazz - constituted only one-third of the US consumer-luggage demand in the 70s. Today, the various lines include ballistic-nylon duffels, roll-up hand totes, and lightweight hang-garment fold-overs that are a far cry from the bulky matched sets of a few years ago.

Airline travel has had something to do with preference for the new-style luggage. Fold-overs and duffels will ''fit under the seat in front of you.'' As carry-ons, these reach your destination when you do - not on the next plane, maybe. And they cause no long airport waits for luggage. Carry-on luggage eliminates the growing problem of lost bags. To date, there is an airline liability of only $750 for the contents of each lost bag. Many travelers who feel this insurance coverage is inadequate prefer to keep their luggage with them.

Another factor encouraging the use of lighter luggage is the extra charge some airlines now impose for checked-through bags. Regulations vary according to airline, but in some cases luggage in excess of 50 pounds per ticket can bring travelers a surcharge of $6 or more per bag. Lightweight bags help travelers stay within the limit. Commuter airlines featuring the walk-on, no-reservation idea have in some cases started charging for the first checked-in bag, as well as others.

There's been a revolutionary change in how air travelers pack and carry their gear. Manufacturers have kept up with the trend by diverting production to the new lines of merchandise. Prestige names in the business - Hartmann, Skyway, American Tourister, Samsonite - are no longer putting their nameplates only on the old impact-resistant plastic cases; they and others are leading the industry in offering new ways to tote the take-alongs.

Most are designer-labeled and exhibit a color-striped fashion flair. To use these, travelers have finally found out this adage is true: you really need to take along only half of the clothing you lay out. Cutting down, travelers are carefully rolling and ''duffeling'' their soft apparel. Suits or dresses placed first in dry-cleaning plastic bags have been found to be fully wearable after traveling in the new hanging, fold-over shoulder bags.

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