[UPDATE: We reported back in March that American Airlines was testing a program that would grant priority boarding to passengers who don't have large carry-on bags. On Thursday the airline formally announced that it's implementing that program on a national basis, allowing customers without a carry-on to board before Group 2 -- that is, right after first-class passengers and elite frequent fliers.
Interestingly, it doesn't look as if American is just looking to save on fuel costs by lightening the load: Customers with a carry-on bag can still score the priority boarding if they agree to gate-check it instead of bringing it on board. As such, it seems the main priority here is to speed up the boarding process, and the company said in its press release that the program did indeed improve on-time performance in tests.
Our original story is below.]
American Airlines is tired of passengers hauling bulky suitcases onto its planes, and it may be willing to entice them to quit with the promise of priority boarding.
Last week, John DiScala of travel site JohnnyJet.com was flying out of Fort Lauderdale when he noticed an American Airlines flight testing a new boarding procedure. The gate attendant announced that passengers who didn't have carry-on luggage that needed to be stowed could board the flight immediately following the first-class passengers and elite frequent fliers.
American Airlines confirmed to him on Twitter that it was indeed testing a priority boarding program for passengers who didn't have carry-on luggage. While it's the first of the big legacy airlines to pursue such a strategy, it's not the first airline to consider it -- DiScala notes that Southwest, Alaska and Frontier are all testing similar programs.
It's not hard to see why airlines are experimenting. Earlier this month, I flew American Airlines and observed the vast majority of passengers (including myself) were hauling large carry-ons and cramming them into overhead bins; the process slowed both boarding and disembarking considerably. With a departure delay putting travelers on the plane at risk of missing their connections, the pilot repeatedly urged passengers to finish boarding so we could leave as quickly as possible. As he spoke, a few of those passengers were still trying to find bins with available space.
Airlines want to turn around flights quickly and keep their on-time rates high, so it's understandable that they'd be looking for incentives to get people to ditch the major carry-ons. But it's also important to remember that American Airlines only has itself to blame for turning its passenger compartments into luggage compartments.
American, you may recall, was the first major airline to start charging customers for their first checked bag, a move it made in the face of rising fuel costs. The other airlines (save for JetBlue and Southwest) quickly followed suit, and now most carriers charge around $25 each way for the first checked bag. It's not surprising that nearly everyone would prefer to cram as much as they can into in a large carry-on rather than pay an extra $50.
But will the promise of priority boarding really get people to ditch all of that "as-big-as-we're allow-to-carry" carry-on luggage?
I'll admit, it was frustrating to stand in the aisle, trapped en route to my seat as a dozen people in front of me struggled to stuff their bags into the overhead compartments. Yes, I would have preferred to get on the plane first, so that I could be seated comfortably while everyone else trudged to their seats.
But I certainly wouldn't pay the $50 checked-bag fee for the privilege. Nor would I be likely to skip the luggage altogether: While some seasoned travelers and business commuters might be able to make do with only a purse or laptop bag, anyone traveling for more than a day or two likely needs at least some luggage. Getting on board a bit earlier would be a nice perk, but it's not worth paying $50, nor going without clean socks.
DiScala says that he likes the idea, but agrees that it's probably not enough to convince most travelers to go luggage-free. And in fact, he notes, in one sense, the perk totally misses the point.
"If you're not [stowing] a bag, why do you want to get on a plane early?" he asks. "The whole idea is to get on the plane early to get bin space before it fills up."
If American and other airlines really want people to stop carrying on so much luggage that it delays flights, they could consider going the route of Spirit or Allegiant, which now tack on a charge for carry-on bags. Or they could go retro, and just do away with their charges for checked baggage.
But don't hold your breath waiting for that second one.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.