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aug 04 2009

Why even your carry-on bag might not be safe

Every airline traveler should know that it's unwise to put valuables or fragile items inside a checked bag. What I saw last week at LaGuardia Airport will make you think twice about putting such items in your carry-on too.

While at the airport eating an overpriced slice of pizza, I looked through a large window at a Delta plane on the tarmac. Every 30 seconds or so, a baggage worker popped out of a door near the plane's boarding area and placed a different rectangular-shaped carry-on bag onto a long green slide. The bags sped down the slide toward a U-shaped bin designed as a crude catcher.

The bin had space to accommodate about three bags. Nonetheless, the worker kept sliding down bag after bag, even after the bin was full and carry-ons began ricocheting up into the air and bouncing on the tarmac, which was wet and strewn with puddles because it had been raining. I counted eight bags lying on the pavement, including one carry-on that opened up and spilled some of its contents onto the ground. I can't say for sure, but it appeared that a pair of tightie-whities, or perhaps a T-shirt, were among the goods lying on the gravel. A few minutes later, another airport worker picked up the bags and drove them around to the other side of the plane and loaded them into a compartment.

I gather that the passengers whose carry-ons took the involuntary ride down the green slide had not been able to find space for their bags inside the plane. All the overhead compartment space on board had been claimed, and so they were forced to check their bags. The same thing happened when I boarded my own flight; the last dozen or so folks onto the plane with big carry-ons had no space to store their bags, and so airline staffers took the bags away to be checked.

It's safe to say that one big reason there's such competition for overhead bin space is that airlines are now charging to check bags, causing more flyers to travel with a carry-on only. The problem is that while checked luggage policies and passenger behavior have both changed, the overhead bin space has remained the same.

What can travelers do? Unfortunately, the airlines seem to be encouraging passengers to be aggressive, leaving them few options but to race to be among the first onto the plane and to take any overhead bin space available, even if it's a few dozen rows away from where they're sitting. There's also the option of simply biting the bullet and paying the $15 or whatever to check your bag, which may or may not be handled better than the carry-ons on the big green slide.

One thing every traveler should do is keep any fragile and valuable items on your person, or in a bag that's small enough to keep with you at your seat at all times. If you don't do so, there's no telling what could happen.

And if your bag or the contents are ruined? You could write a song about it and shoot a video as revenge. That's what one United passenger did because his guitar had been damaged. Not everyone is that ambitious, however. You could also simply file a claim to get compensated.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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