Musicians should embrace carry-on baggage fees

January 7, 2017

People are outraged over an airline’s announcement that its cheapest fares will no longer cover carry-on baggage. (This isn’t the first time that airlines have charged fees for carry-on bags.)

My experience flying with musical instruments as carry-ons has been stressful at best. This passage from an economics textbook rings true to me:

photo, Bradley Gordon

The battle begins in the gate where air travelers elbow their way to the front of the line to board the aircraft as soon as possible in order to grab an overhead bin. Once on the aircraft, the real fight begins. Some passengers with seats in the rear of the plane toss their bags into the front compartments to be sure they get a spot. People with oversized bags cram them into the narrow bins, pushing the bags, coats, and hats of passengers with correctly sized luggage into the corners. People ask for help from the flight attendants but their pleas are ignored. The flight attendants say they are too short staffed to handle passenger disagreements concerning bags. Losers are left standing with their “homeless” bags. …

Are people just selfish and rude? Most economists say no, they are just responding to the absence of market incentives. The overhead bins are a commons. It’s Dodge City. Nobody “owns” the space in the overhead bins. People can’t trust strangers to act with cooperation or courtesy. The result is “warfare.”

Things could be different. Creating an overhead bin market would bring out the best of people. Here is how. Most of today’s airlines charge people extra to check a bag and offer the overhead bins for “free.” It should be just the reverse.

Nobody likes paying more. But a carry-on fee is a small percentage of an airline ticket. And for most musicians it’s a small price to pay for better access (maybe even guaranteed access!) to the overhead storage. Is it worth the price of a box of reeds or two to know my saxophone will arrive in one piece? Or the price of a pound or two of cane to ensure that my bassoon reaches its destination? I think so.