Editor’s Note: Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 30 years of flying experience. He is also a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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Opponents shot down proposal for smaller carry-ons last week

Abend: We need a solution that makes airline travel efficient without penalizing passengers

CNN  — 

The decisions that directly affect the safety of airline customers originate from my office (at the pointy end of the airplane). The decisions that directly affect the satisfaction of airline customers originate from offices outside the airplane.

As pilots, most times we resign ourselves to the fact that we must trust the other offices to make appropriate decisions. On some days, well … we raise our eyebrows. When the International Air Transport Association recommended a reduction in carry-on bag dimensions last week, it was one of those times.

Les Abend

I get the logic. When the airlines first became slaves to the almighty Department of Transportation’s documentation of on-time arrivals and departures in January 1995, it became important to be the carrier with the best record between New York and Chicago, between Washington and Boston – between wherever.

At first, it was a, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” attitude.

Airplanes were being pushed back from the gate with passengers standing in the aisles while flight attendants scampered about helping to shove overstuffed carry-ons into overstuffed overhead bins.

The Federal Aviation Administration wasn’t pleased, and in response began to strictly enforce the regulation that required all carry-on bags be stowed before closing the entry doors.

The adjustment period was difficult. Invariably, when ground personnel had the airplane all closed up and ready to go at the gate, I would get an intercom call from the flight attendants with the standard script of, “Captain, we still have passengers standing in the aisle.”

Our cabin crew would then make frantic efforts to help wrestle bags into overhead bins. An on-time departure was the Holy Grail.

Although the cabin crews have adjusted to the routine, it can still be a difficult process. Revenue generation aside, airline management has helped to create the problem by charging to check bags. Who wouldn’t want to stuff a little extra into their carry-on to save on the cost of an extra-checked bag?

Storage space can become a premium on crowded flights. But as opponents to the now-scrapped IATA proposal have said, we shouldn’t penalize our customers further by forcing them to shrink their carry-ons and pay for extra luggage for a problem the airline generated.

With the proposal shot down, what is the solution, then?

Well, a two-aisle, wide-body airplane goes a long way in mitigating the problem. Unfortunately, a one-aisle, narrow-body aircraft is not conducive to efficient movement. The typical instruction the flight attendants give to step out of the aisle and let other people pass behind does not necessarily allow for rapid storage of items in the overhead bins.

Some airlines have given early-boarding priority to passengers without carry-on bags. Others have begun trials with a bag-valet process where airline personnel store your carry-on above your seat in an overhead bin before boarding. And if your bag doesn’t fit and you’re at the tail-end of the boarding process, it just has to be checked to your destination. Sorry.

Certainly, greater minds than mine can come up with more innovative solutions.

And by the way, I measured my carry-on bag. The bag is designed specifically for airline crewmembers. It’s 1 inch over the length limit, 1 inch over the width limit and a good 3 inches over the depth limit of the IATA recommendation.

As a 31-year airline veteran, I’ll proclaim myself a traveling professional. Granted, if I’m flying the trip, my carry-ons have a designated spot either in the cockpit or the cabin. But other times, I am on equal footing with passengers, making me just as invested in what airline management chooses to do next in regard to carry-on luggage.

I’d rather not see my passengers opt for Amtrak, or worse, their own automobiles. Please, let’s find a better solution to the carry-on bag conundrum. Comparing airline travel to the dentist chair shouldn’t be the norm.

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