Boarding the plane can be one of the most stressful aspects of air travel for both the crew and passengers alike. As departure time approaches, it is the crew’s responsibility to ensure everyone is seated, all items are stowed in the galley and cabin per regulations, and all safety checks are carried out. Meanwhile, passengers race to be among the first to board the plane to secure space in the overhead compartments.
It is perfectly understandable that most travelers want to place their bags directly above their seats for easy access during the flight and to retrieve them quickly upon landing. However, the space above a seat on an airliner is not guaranteed or reserved for the person sitting in that particular row. In fact, most domestic airliners have three passengers in a single row on both sides of the aisle in the main cabin. So, how does each of the three passengers get priority for the same space? Some low-cost carriers charge extra fees for carry-on bags but do not guarantee specific overhead space; they simply sell the ability to store a bag in the cabin. Then there are those travelers who try to place their bags in the front of the cabin even if they are seated in the back, just to retrieve them upon exiting. But is this considered rude?
There are many questions surrounding the space above our heads. Here, flight attendants offer their practical and courteous advice.
Basic Etiquette for Overhead Compartments
“Many passengers put all their belongings in the overhead compartments just to expand the legroom and get more space, and this causes a problem with the designated overhead space,” says Karina Kay, a flight attendant based in Las Vegas. But personal items should be stored under your front seat, says Kay, “Of course, we all want to be comfortable and relaxed, but keep your personal belongings until the boarding process is complete. Give others with larger bags a chance to stow theirs, then place your bag in the surrounding space.” Many crew members also suggest keeping coats and jackets until the boarding is finished, and then placing them over any stowed bags.
However, some flight attendants differ in opinion. Lucy Williams from Denver says, “If someone paid to check their bag, why not place the smaller item in the designated space above? Here, the principle of ‘first come, first served’ applies, but I’ll always ask if we need the space and if they mind using the space under their seat, but I won’t insist.”
Regardless of where you place your bags, Michael Klipp, a flight attendant based at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, says, “The more passengers who look for overhead bin space in the aisle, the more likely the flight will be delayed. We can’t close the door to depart until everything is properly stowed. If there’s no room for bags, we have to wait for a gate agent to come down and start tagging bags to be checked at the entryway. It takes time.”
So, as a general rule, try to only place larger items in the designated overhead compartments. If you decide to put your personal item above your head, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to remove it later. Consider it your contribution to avoiding delayed departures.
Don’t Place Your Bags Too Far Away
If you’re one of those travelers who places their bag in the first available spot above, regardless of where you’re sitting, just make sure your bag is visible. When the cabin crew plays the complex Tetris game to fit everything, they often need to move one or two bags. Valenika Ray, a flight attendant based in Florida, says, “I remove the smaller item from the bin and ask, ‘Whose is this?’ If nobody responds, I announce it will be removed from the plane as it wasn’t claimed.” Ray adds that most of the time the bag can fit under a seat or be placed in a smaller empty spot on the other side of the plane. Ray doesn’t mind passengers putting their bags anywhere as long as it’s not in first class, and they can keep it in sight.
What about the “Reserved” Space for Business Class?
Many airlines have a premium economy or business class section, and one of the advertised benefits of this class is having dedicated overhead bin space. The wording is carefully chosen, as “dedicated” doesn’t mean “reserved.” It is offered on a first-come-first-served basis to those sitting in that specific service class, but once it fills up, it fills up. Passengers with tickets for overhead compartment space generally board before the main boarding process to be granted priority access to those compartments. However, if the section becomes full due to everyone bringing carry-ons, it may occupy space designated for the main cabin. The good news is that it works both ways. Once everyone is seated in their premium classes, the available space in the designated overhead areas in the main cabin becomes available for other passengers.
Ingrid Imperial, a flight attendant based in Los Angeles who primarily works in first class, says, “An empty spot is an empty spot, especially at the end of the boarding process.” Imperial has often witnessed excitement from first-class passengers when someone from the main cabin places their bag in a compartment designated for first class. Imperial says, “If all the first-class passengers are seated and have placed their bags, I don’t see any problem with that.” Imperial believes that first-class passengers paid for priority access, and they prefer to store their bags and depart on time. She also thinks first-class passengers would not mind if others placed their bags anywhere, as long as they are not in first class, and they can keep them in sight.
Based on my experience as a former flight attendant, I would like to emphasize that the most important thing is to remain courteous to those around you. If you can’t find space for your bag, don’t hesitate to ask for assistance from one of the crew members. On the other hand, if you can place a small bag under your seat to allow someone else to stow their bag in the bin, or if you can keep your coat and place it over someone else’s bag after they have stowed it, why not do so? These small gestures make the travel experience less stressful for everyone on board.