Passengers will jockey for storage space in cramped overhead bins. Flight attendants will have to step in to referee and demand that those stuffed suitcases be checked. Ground crews will scramble to load excess oversized carry-ons into cargo holds as the plane idles.
Security backups will grow still longer as passengers throw more bags at screeners to be looked at or opened - some no doubt carrying banned liquids or gels.
Those are the scenes that airline analysts and workers envision if American Airlines' decision this week to charge for all checked luggage prompts other carriers to follow suit - and if travelers rebel by trying to bring as much carry-on baggage as they can get away with.
"It's going to be a nightmare," said Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents more than 19,000 workers at American. "It's not just American; all the airlines have the problem with everyone traveling with those roll-aboard bags. There's not enough room for everybody."
American's announcement came just ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, which ushers in a summer travel season already forecast to feature crowded planes, airport delays and rising fares. It also comes at a time when passenger dissatisfaction with airline customer service has reached its highest level since 2001, according to an annual survey by the University of Michigan, and when airlines are under enormous financial pressure from soaring jet-fuel prices and scrambling for whatever new revenue they can find.
American, the country's biggest airline, said it would begin imposing the $15 one-way charge for the first bag June 15, though observers said it could scrap the latest plan to boost revenue if other airlines fail to follow its lead. Many big carriers, including American, began charging $25 for a second checked bag two weeks ago. Spirit Airlines, a small, low-cost carrier, also charges to check every bag.
"They're breaking new ground with this one," said Dean Headley, a Wichita State University marketing professor and co-author of another annual report on airline quality. "It fundamentally changes the promise that the airlines have had with the traveling public. This is fraught with the potential for all kinds of bad consumer outcomes."
Southwest Airlines, the biggest domestic carrier, pledged yesterday that its passengers would still be able to check two bags for free. The airline, which operates more than half the flights at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, started charging $25 for a third bag in January.
The new charges come as airlines have seen numbers of checked bags surge since the Transportation Security Administration passed tight restrictions on carry-on liquids, gels and aerosols after a London terror plot surfaced in August 2006. Southwest said its volume of checked bags has grown by more than 20 percent since then. Tighter restrictions on the number and size of carry-ons in recent years have also pushed more travelers to check their bags.
With oil trading above $130 a barrel, up more than 70 percent from last year, American said the baggage charge is necessary to gain revenue and conserve jet fuel by encouraging passengers to travel lighter.
Any surge in carry-ons could particularly be problematic on smaller regional jets, which have become much more common in recent years. Such planes, which have about 50 seats on average, have far less overhead space, though they transport close to 23 percent of all U.S. domestic fliers, said Roger Cohen, spokesman for the Regional Airline Association.
But handing over luggage takes a leap of faith when flying some regional carriers, such as American Eagle. The carrier, owned by American's parent AMR Corp., had the highest rate of mishandled bags out of 20 airlines in June and August last summer, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The $15 bag charge also applies to passengers on American Eagle's regional jets, company spokesman Tim Wagner said.
Wagner said the airline won't pass on the charge for carry-ons that fit American's size limits but later have to be checked at the gate or jet bridge. That eased American flight attendants' fears that they would have to try to charge passengers at the gate - but not entirely.
"It's one more thing we'll find ourselves apologizing for that we have no control over," Glading said. "We're really downtrodden."
AirTran Airways, which is No.2 to Southwest at BWI, and airlines such as United said they couldn't rule out charging for a first bag down the road. AirTran charges $10 for checking a second bag.
But AirTran also emphasizes the ample space it has available in the overhead bins of its Boeing 717 and 737 planes. Bins on its planes have been expanded to create the same storage capacity per person that's available on larger 747 aircraft.
"That's one of the things that really separates us from the bunch," said Cynthia Tinsley-Douglas, an AirTran spokeswoman.
Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Lauren M. Wolf said the agency had already planned to hire new part-time screeners to cope with the busy vacation season. She wouldn't comment on whether American's new bag charges would lead to more checkpoint delays.
But airports that American serves that have a single security checkpoint for all airlines, such as Nashville, Tenn., and Denver, could experience major backups, Glading said.
"You're going to see wait times expand," said Richard D. Gritta, a transportation finance professor at the University of Portland in Oregon.
"It's going to be a mess if people try to carry everything on."
Airlines might start charging passengers for carry-ons, as European low-fare carrier Ryanair does, Gritta added.
Kate Hanni, who heads a grass roots group called the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, said she would lobby Congress to help protect customers against additional bag charges.
"It's part of all their unbundling of costs so they can deceive the passenger into thinking they're paying less for a ticket," Hanni said.
"We'd rather have all the fees under one roof."
NO LONGER FREE
Here's a summary of what what the six largest airlines operating at BWI charge for checked bags on one-way flights:
*Southwest Airlines: $25 for third bag.
*AirTran Airways: $10 for second bag, $50 for third bag.
*Delta: $25 for second bag, $80 for third bag.
*US Airways: $25 for second bag, $100 for third bag.
*United: $25 for second bag, $100 for third bag.
*American: $15 for first bag (starting June 15), $25 for second bag, and $100 for third bag.
Get travel news and tips at baltimoresun.com