The only airline baggage rule that many of us could comprehend is up in the air.
The firm "one-plus-one" limit -- one carry-on bag plus one personal item -- that the Federal Aviation Administration established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is not so firm anymore. It's not even clear who is enforcing it.
Some airlines say it's the FAA. The FAA says it's the Transportation Security Administration, and the TSA says it's the airlines. That could leave passengers holding the bag.
I encountered this regulatory turbulence while trying to track down a revision to carry-on rules that the TSA quietly posted on its Web site, www.tsa.gov, on Nov. 19, a week before the Thanksgiving travel crush. The rule said:
"You may carry one (1) bag of photographic equipment in addition to one (1) carry-on and one (1) personal item through the screening checkpoint. The additional bag must conform to your air carrier's carry-on restrictions for size and weight."
A few days later, the rule acquired this warning: "Air carriers may or may not allow the additional carry-on item on their aircraft."
In fact, many air carriers weren't allowing it. Of the five I checked, American, America West, Delta and Southwest said they wouldn't let the extra photo bag on; United said it would.
Several airlines cited FAA rules as the basis for their policies. American's Web site stated: "FAA security measures limit customers on all AA flights to one carry-on bag plus one personal item." Southwest's Web site also referred to "the new FAA-mandated carryon policy."
But the FAA said it hadn't regulated the number of carry-ons since the TSA took charge of security at U.S. airports in November 2002.
"Basically, prior to 9 / 11, we ... did not limit the number of bags," FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said of the carry-on policy. The agency began to do so after the 2001 attacks, but "subsequent to the TSA coming on board and taking over security, they now pretty much decide that," she added.
Not exactly, according to the TSA. "Our policy affects rules governing the checkpoint," said Mark Hatfield, TSA spokesman. "When you get to the gate, it's still up to the airline."
How about toting your trumpet through security? Another TSA revision, adopted in December 2002, allows you to take one musical instrument, besides your "one-plus-one" allowance, through checkpoints.
"Horned instruments are best transported as checked baggage," the policy states. "String instruments, within carrier size limitations, are best transported as carry-on items." But, as with photo bags, it's up to the airline to decide whether you can take the item on board.
The TSA adopted the carry-on exceptions at the request of professional musicians and photographers, who wanted to safeguard delicate, expensive equipment and avoid subjecting film to damaging X-rays used to screen checked bags, Hatfield said. But "we're not going to check for professional credentials," he added.
Meanwhile, the FAA continues to regulate other areas of carry-on policies focused on safety aboard aircraft. For instance, it requires airlines to restrict carry-ons to a size that fits into overhead bins or below the seats. Airlines are required to file plans with the FAA for each type of aircraft they fly that contain the specifics for accomplishing this and other goals, which the agency can accept or veto, Duquette said.
In fact, weight and size restrictions for carry-ons still vary widely from airline to airline, according to their Web sites. Delta, for instance, says only that carry-on bags can't be larger than 22 by 14 by 9 inches; Continental says length, width and height must total 51 inches or less and that the bag can't weigh more than 40 pounds.
Because many airlines code-share, meaning you may be ticketed by one airline but flying on another's aircraft, you could encounter three or more carry-on policies in the same trip: one for Airline A's jet, one for Airline B's jet and another for Airline A or B's small prop plane.
And that's just in the United States. Foreign airlines display even less uniformity and often stricter weight limits for carry-ons.
No worldwide body regulates the number, weight or size of carry-ons, said Wanda Warner, spokeswoman for the International Air Transport Association, which represents 275 carriers in 143 nations. IATA merely recommends a standard. In its current manual, the suggested limit is 45 inches for the sum of a carry-on bag's length, width and height; neither the weight nor number of bags is mentioned.
According to its Web sites, British Airways allows most coach travelers one carry-on weighing up to 13 pounds and measuring 22 by 16 by 8 inches; first class can take up to 40 pounds, including a briefcase or laptop. Air France allows one bag plus one "accessory," such as a purse, laptop or camera, providing the total weight is 26.4 pounds or less and the bag's length-width-height totals 45.2 inches or less.
What's a confused traveler to do about the carry-on chaos?
You could try grilling your airline about the rules for each aircraft scheduled for your journey. That's tedious and not foolproof, because reservation agents may give different answers, airlines sometimes switch out aircraft and, if overhead bins are full, you may have to check an otherwise acceptable carry-on.
Or you could try the "bag-within-a-bag" system suggested by Doug Wills, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents the major U.S.-based airlines. He advocates clear plastic bags for packing photo equipment, toiletries and so on, and putting these inside your carry-on.
That way, if your bag flunks the carry-on test, you can quickly pluck out valuables and survival items to take on board.
Or you could sit down and write or e-mail your U.S. senator or congressman, the TSA and the airlines and ask: Why can't they get together to create and enforce consistent carry-on rules that everyone can understand?
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.