Published on June 23rd, 2015 | by Jim Lee


IATA ‘Cabin OK’ bag initiative backfires

On 9th June, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), announced a new initiative  “to optimise the accommodation of carry-on bags given differing carry-on bag sizes and airline policies”. The measure was described as an effort to address “carry-on bag dilemma”, but in the end it only managed to cause confusion.

In launching its initiative, it said that “working with airline members of IATA and aircraft manufacturers, an optimum size guideline for carry-on bags has been agreed, that will make the best use of cabin storage space”. A size of 55 x 35 x 20 cm (or 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches) means that theoretically everyone should have a chance to store their carry-on bags on board aircraft of 120 seats or larger.

It went on to say that an “IATA Cabin OK” logo to signify to airline staff “that a bag meets the agreed size guidelines has been developed”. A number of major international airlines were said to have signalled their interest to join the initiative and would soon be introducing the guidelines into their operations.

“The development of an agreed optimal cabin bag size will bring common sense and order to the problem of differing sizes for carry-on bags. We know the current situation can be frustrating for passengers. This work will help to iron out inconsistencies and lead to an improved passenger experience,” said Tom Windmuller, IATA’s Senior Vice President for Airport, Passenger, Cargo and Security.

IATA logo

IATA said it was working with baggage tracking solutions provider Okoban to manage the approval process of bag manufacturers. Each bag meeting the dimensions of the specifications, will carry a special joint label, featuring IATA and Okoban, as well as a unique identification code that signals to airline staff, that the bag complies with the optimum size guidelines.

Several major baggage manufacturers were said to have developed products in line with the optimum size guidelines, and it was expected bags carrying the identifying label would start to reach retail shops later this year. Recognition of the IATA Cabin OK logo is expected to grow with time as more airlines opt-in to this IATA initiative.

However, many consumers viewed the initiative as a sign that IATA airlines might try to shrink the size limits for free carry-on bags. There were also fears that tighter restrictions would force some passengers to have to check-in bags, lengthening their wait times at airports and increasing costs, now that airlines often charge for checked luggage. Changing bag sizes could also lead to confusion and the logo system proposed could render existing baggage obsolete, a bonus for manufacturers, but an extra cost for travellers. The initiative was also viewed with scepticism by airlines, particularly in the United States.

IATA forced to clarify Cabin OK initiative

On 15th IATA issued comments clarifying key elements of its Cabin OK initiative, which it said had “been misunderstood in some reporting”. It reiterated that the IATA Cabin OK initiative for carry-on bags, aims to provide passengers “with a greater assurance that their carry-on bags will travel with them in the aircraft cabin”, even when the flight is full.

“Cabin OK is all about providing the customer with greater assurances. If you have a Cabin OK bag, you can be pretty sure that you are within the maximum carry-on limits of airlines around the world. If you are travelling on an airline participating in the program, you will have the best chance that your bag will be with you in the cabin even on a full flight,” said Mr Windmuller. “For passengers travelling with bags that don’t have the Cabin OK logo, there’s no need to worry. If it was accepted for travel before, it will be acceptable for travel now, but with the same uncertainty that if the flight is full it may eventually have to travel in the hold,” he added.

It again emphasised that the Cabin OK size guideline, developed by working with airlines and manufacturers, is a guideline, not a standard. Airlines have no plans to restrict carry-on baggage to the Cabin OK dimensions of 55 x 35 x 20 cm (or 21.5″ x 13.5″ x 7.5″ inches). The maximum size of cabin baggage it repeated is set individually by each airline and this is not affected by the Cabin OK initiative. The new size was calculated to make the best use of storage space in the cabin as a typical fully booked narrow-body jet aircraft is not able to accommodate a bag for every passenger on board, at present maximum size limits. On-time departures also suffer as airline staff search for passengers willing to put their bag in the hold. If fully embraced by passengers, everyone would have a chance to travel with their carry-on bags on board 120 seat aircraft or larger, even when the flight is full.

Tom Windmulle with IATA Cabin OK baggage

Tom Windmulle with IATA Cabin OK baggage

It accepted however, that The Cabin OK guideline is smaller than the size set by most airlines as their maximum acceptable for carry-on baggage. Passengers however with Cabin OK carry-on baggage can travel with a greater assurance that it will be acceptable across the different airline requirements and, when travelling on a participating airline there is a further benefit: those bags with a Cabin OK logo will have a priority (determined individually by each airline) for staying in the cabin should its cabin capacity be exceeded and some baggage needs to be moved to the hold.

The major international airlines that have signalled their interest to join the initiative would soon be introducing operational guidelines to give Cabin OK bags priority to stay on board the aircraft when all carry-on bags cannot be accommodated in the cabin the IATA statement confirmed.

IATA also pointed out that passengers with carry-on bags larger than Cabin OK sized bags will not be obliged to buy new bags. However they will continue to face the same uncertainty that their bags may not be able to be accommodated in the cabin. It also denied that Cabin OK was a revenue generating scheme for the airlines. For the vast majority of airlines, the current practice when all baggage complying with maximum size limits cannot fit into the cabin storage is to check this baggage in the aircraft hold free of charge. The Cabin OK initiative would not change this practice and passengers would be able to continue to use carry-on baggage that is larger than the Cabin OK size provided it is within airline maximum size limits. Cabin OK is an identifier to crew and ground staff. Only bags manufactured with Cabin OK logo are part of the program. There is no retro-certification planned for existing bags that comply with the Cabin OK dimension.

Opposition remains

In a statement on 17th June, Airlines for America (A4A), the industry trade organisation for the leading U.S. airlines, said that no U.S. airlines were supporting this smaller carry-on bag initiative “A4A and its members reject the recent carry-on size initiative put forth by IATA because it is unnecessary and flies in the face of the actions the U.S. carriers are taking to invest in the customer experience – roughly $1.2 billion (€1.05 billion) a month – including larger overhead bins,” said A4A President and CEO Nicholas E. Calio.

“Our members already have guidelines in place on what size bags they can accommodate, making this action unnecessary. It is important to note that IATA’s Cabin OK initiative is not a requirement for the industry. The initiative is 100% voluntary and is an agreement between IATA and carriers who choose to participate” he added.

Delta said it had no plans to reduce the size allowance for carry-on bags, noting concern over the IATA initiative and the fact that the IATA proposal is slightly smaller than the 55.9 x 35.6 x 22.9 cm (or 22″ x 14″ x 9″), that United, American and Delta currently allow. Charlie Leocha, chairman of US consumer advocacy group Travellers United said that airline fees for checked luggage caused more travellers to take carry-on bags, crowding overhead bins on planes and six US senators sent a joint letter asking US airline executives asking them to end checked baggage fees if the carry-on sizes are reduced.

IATA pauses rollout of Cabin OK to reassess initiative

On 17th June, IATA announced that it was pausing the rollout of the initiative and was beginning a comprehensive reassessment in light of concerns expressed, primarily in North America. This will include further engagement with program participants, the IATA membership, and key stakeholders.

Interest in the Cabin OK program has been intense it said, adding that, “while the value of this initiative has been welcomed by many, including a growing list of airlines expressing interest in the program, there has also been much confusion”. It acknowledged that in North America particularly, there had been significant concerns raised in the media and by key stakeholders.

“Our focus is on providing travellers with an option that would lead to a simplified and better experience. While many welcomed the Cabin OK initiative, significant concerns were expressed in North America. Cabin OK is a voluntary program for airlines and for consumers. This is clearly an issue that is close to the heart of travellers. We need to get it right. Today we are pausing the rollout and launching a comprehensive reassessment of the Cabin OK program with plans to further engage program participants, the rest of our members, and other key stakeholders,” Mr Windmuller went on to say in its statement.

Commenting on the announcement Charlie Leocha said that “it’s a big win for consumers that the airlines realise that they’d overstepped their bounds,” while A4A said that they agreed with IATA’s action to reassess this initiative “and take into account stakeholders’ views and recognize work already underway to improve baggage facilitation.”

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About the Author

Jim has had a life-long interest in military matters and aviation. Initially, he fused both of these interests together with a passion for military aviation, initially as a photographer. He has travelled extensively over the years and has been the guest of many European air forces, plus the air forces of the United States, Russia and others throughout the world. His first introduction to journalism coincided with an interest in the civil aviation industry was when he initially wrote for and later edited, ‘Aviation Ireland’, the club magazine of the Aviation Society of Ireland. Jim was a contributor to Flying in Ireland since its inception over 10 years ago and is now a key contributor to this site. He has also contributed items for a number of other aviation magazines and has produced a number of detailed contributions to Government policy documents, most recently the Irish Government’s White Paper on Defence. He is also deeply involved in the local community and voluntary sector and has worked both in local government and central government.

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