DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Many airline passengers thought it was outrageous when they had to start paying to check luggage a few years ago. To avoid the fees, some passengers began experimenting to see just how big a piece of luggage they could get onto the airplane with them. Some flight attendants say that's getting out of hand, and so airlines are now trying to address the problem with bigger overhead bins.
NPR's Annie Baxter has that story.
ANNIE BAXTER, BYLINE: Tell me if you've ever had a conversation like this. It's the night before a big trip, and you're trying to figure out how to avoid checking bags and paying a bunch of fees.
JESS NELSON: Well, I was thinking that we could share one of those backpacks because it's pretty big.
MOLLY NELSON: I packed a lot, though.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOLLY NELSON: So I'm going to need like, my own bag.
BAXTER: These two sisters, Molly and Jess Nelson, are scheming with their parents, Sue and Scott, about what to cram into a big, black suitcase. It's the only bag they'll pay for between the four of them, on their trip from Minneapolis to San Diego.
SCOTT NELSON: This is the one we will check.
(SOUNDBITE OF ZIPPER)
BAXTER: Besides that, they'll each bring carry-ons. And they have a special trick: They use duffel bags that don't have hard spines. Jess says they're malleable enough to squeeze into overhead bins – for the most part.
JESS NELSON: I feel like it's right on the edge of fitting as a carry-on. When I'm like, stuffing it up there, I always feel like people are like, that shouldn't be here.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JESS NELSON: You know - like, it's too big.
BAXTER: Airlines introduced checked-bag fees in 2008, when fuel prices were hammering them. Southwest doesn't charge for the first two checked bags, but most others do - about 25 bucks for the first bag, and 35 for the second.
That's prompted lots of travelers like the Nelsons to devise clever ways of using only carry-ons.
Linda Verboom, a flight attendant based in Washington, D.C., says one strategy leaves some fliers looking like the Michelin Man. She's seen passengers wear tons of layers so that they don't draw scrutiny with bulky carry-ons.
LINDA VERBOOM: I did have a young girl come on recently that was wearing a pair of leggings, a pair of shorts and a skirt, several T-shirts, one of those zip-up hoodies; to try to get as much onboard as she possibly could and later, started to undress and, you know, roll everything up and put it back into her suitcase.
BAXTER: Verboom says messing around with carry-ons can delay departures and distract flight attendants when they're supposed to be looking out for suspicious activity.
VERBOOM: There's a long list of things that we are supposed to be watching out for during boarding. Few of those things can be accomplished when you're in the middle of the aisle, you know, wrestling a bag into an overhead bin.
BAXTER: The union she belongs to, the Association of Flight Attendants, made that argument in a Senate subcommittee hearing yesterday.
The union wants the Transportation Security Administration to take over enforcement of the number of carry-on bags and their size. The group says that would help cut down on the carry-on chaos that flight attendants have to deal with.
But airlines are taking their own steps to deal with carry-on issues. Their gate agents are looking out for bags that are too big. And some - like American, United, Delta and US Airways - are expanding the size of their overhead bins.
Travelers may wonder, why not just incorporate the cost of checked bags into the ticket price, and not charge the extra fees?
TIM SMITH: It would be much simpler if it were that way.
BAXTER: Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines, says if they did that at his carrier, the airline would look a lot more expensive than other carriers on fare-comparison sites. That could be deadly.
SMITH: Experience has shown us that shoppers will walk across the street for as little as a dollar or two difference.
BAXTER: On the whole, fliers actually do have a lot of ways to dodge bag fees. Some elite flier and credit card programs waive them. But whatever airlines can pull in through bag fees, they're unlikely to give up, especially given how tough it's been for the industry to turn a profit.
Annie Baxter, NPR News, St. Paul.