Road Warrior

Coming to a plane near you: More overhead space

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC
Source: Boeing

Roomier seats and more adequate legroom are among the top airline fixes travelers often hope for, but at least one wish is in the process of being fulfilled. One airline is experimenting with larger overhead carry-on bins.

Last week in Seattle, Alaska Airlines took delivery of the first Boeing 737 outfitted with new "Space Bins," which increase storage room by almost 50 percent. The redesigned bins can each hold six standard-size carry-on bags, which Boeing says is two more than the current pivot bins installed on some Next-Generation 737s.

In making this fix, Alaska Air appears to tackle a problem frequently encountered by travelers — having to check (and pay extra for) a bag that airlines consider too large.

"There's a lot of anxiety for passengers these days about whether or not they're going to get their bags on the plane," said Sangita Woerner, Alaska Airlines vice president of marketing. "With these bins, the pain point and that stress is dramatically lowered because they know they'll get their bags on."

Alaska is installing Space Bins on all its 737-900ERs and 737 MAX aircraft currently on order. By 2017, 69 airplanes, or 46 percent of the carrier's passenger fleet, will be outfitted with Space Bins. Delta and United Air are among the other airlines planning to install Space Bins on some planes, according to Boeing.

On Next-Generation 737s and 737 MAXs with interiors configured for Alaska, Space Bins will provide room for a total of 57 more bags. Boeing estimates other airlines that purchase the option may be able to fit up to an additional 66 bags.

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That extra room may reduce stress for passengers hoping to find space in the overhead bins for their carry-on bags, and help smooth out the boarding process for everyone, said Brent Walton, manager of 737 interiors' new features for Boeing commercial airplanes.

"When passengers board a plane and have to spend time trying to find a place to stow their bags, it slows down the process," he said. "If there's more space for bags everyone, including those with no carry-on bags, can board and get seated quicker."

It also means fewer bags that have to be gate-checked — helping to speed up departures and reducing headaches for airlines overall.

The new, larger Space Bins hang about two inches shorter than current bins. However, Walton said that in tests passengers didn't seem to mind — or notice — losing that overhead space. He said those two inches make it is easier for travelers to lift their bags into the bins.

The bins are also easier for passengers and flight attendants to close, he added.

Larger overhead bins are a welcome amenity for many airline passengers. However, some say the problem isn't that travelers need more luggage room, but less.

The creative team at Seattle-based design consultancy, Teague, envisions a future when airplanes will have much smaller storage bins in the cabin. As part of a future airline concept they call Poppi, the Boeing design partner would banish all luggage from the cabin and offer only "fedora bins," leaving room only for hats, computer bags and jackets.

That idea is part of what the firm insists are solutions that make storage of large items in overhead bins unnecessary.

"Technologies, such as RFID tags, that offer passengers a high level of assurance of where their bags are, already exist," said Devin Liddell, Teague's principal brand strategist.

Increased bag tracking and delivery options would mean that passengers wouldn't need to or even want to take their carry-on bags on board, said Liddell. That would mean everything from the security checkpoint experience to the boarding process could be dramatically altered.

"The way we're handling bags now is broken," said Liddell. "It's just not sustainable. Something is going to have to change."

— Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.