Lesson from JetBlue attendant meltdown: overhead bins are sacred

With airlines charging for checked baggage, the scramble for overhead bin space can get heated – as was apparently the case Monday, when one tussle led a JetBlue attendant to start hurling profanities at a passenger.

The overhead bins on airplanes have prompted many a territorial scuffle, but overall there are far fewer cases of unruly passengers than there were five years ago.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Graphic: Decline in unruly passengers

Most frequent flyers have witnessed the battle for overhead bin space – the mad scramble as people hoist suitcases over heads and push, shove, and squeeze bags into a diminishing amount of space.

On Monday, the rush to claim that much sought-after space apparently set off one of the more bizarre events in commercial airline history that culminated in the arrest of JetBlue flight attendant Steve Slater.

Before Mr. Slater's reported verbal tirade against a passenger aboard a Pittsburgh to New York flight and before he fled the airplane via its emergency chute – while clutching a few beers purloined from the galley – he apparently broke up a fight between two passengers vying for that coveted area above their seats.

IN PICTURES: The wide world of air travel

According to Slater’s lawyer, one of those passengers smashed the overhead bin door into his head.

To many who have experienced first-hand the frustrations of not being able to find space for a bag aboard an airplane – and the frustration of paying additional fees for checking luggage – the episode that played out on the JetBlue flight Monday may not be that surprising.

"It’s gotten ugly,” says New Yorker Robin Brassner. “I have seen it where the suitcase is so tight ... people would use their foot to shove it in if they could.”

It's gotten territorial, too, as many passengers feel that the space above their seat belongs only to them.

“It does get a little competitive out there,” agrees Karin Smith of Tampa, Fla., as she boards a bus to LaGuardia Airport for the trip back to Florida. “No one wants to pay to check their bag.”

Even an airline industry spokesman admits overhead bin confrontations are now a part of flying.

“I have witnessed disagreements since 1977 over who had the right to the overhead space,” says David Castelveter, vice president of communications at the Air Transport Association in Washington. “With fuller airplanes and people carrying their bags on, the airlines are trying to deal with it the best they can.”

He says to try to control the situation, many airlines have limited the size and number of bags that passengers can carry on board. And flight attendants are typically helpful when it comes to helping passengers fit their bags into overhead bins. “I marvel that they do it with a smile on their face,” he says.

Just to set the record straight, Mr. Castelveter says, the space above your seat is definitely not included in the price of the ticket. “There is no requirement the airline provide you with overhead space,” he says.

Even though there is more competition for those bins, FAA statistics indicate there are far fewer incidents of unruly passenger behavior on planes today. As of June 3, there were only 23 reported cases of involving disorderly passengers compared with 203 cases in all of 2005.

Still, the battle for space has caused some flyers, such as Christine Cannon of Virginia, to give-up carry-ons altogether.

“I have given up bringing on a carry-on especially during the week because all the business travelers have both their suitcases and their lap tops. It’s not worth it for me to compete,” she says.

In the JetBlue incident, it was not just an overhead bin brawl that caused the problem. Reportedly, the traveler who bashed the flight attendant, was trying to get her bag down while the plane was still moving.

Peter Roche of Sherman, Conn., who often flies to Florida, knows all to well the rush to exit the plane.

Mr. Roche recalls stepping into the aisle to let his wife and two young children leave. However, he stepped in front of another man who was racing off the plane. They bumped and Roche recalls, “he got very confrontational.”

"We got into this little scuffle while I let my wife and children out,” he says. “I will never forget it.”

It was on a JetBlue flight, as well.

IN PICTURES: The wide world of air travel

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