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American Airlines boarding experiment rewards fliers without carry-ons

March 22, 2013 at 6:15 AM ET

Video: With lengthy boarding lines frustrating passengers, American Airlines is searching for a new procedure that would get them onto planes faster, experimenting at airports in Fort Lauderdale, Baltimore and elsewhere. NBC’s Kerry Sanders reports.

If you fly coach, you know the carry-on madness can turn civilized travelers into crazed overhead bin squatters in the quest to avoid checked bag fees, so one carrier is trying a different approach.

American Airlines is testing a new boarding procedure that awards passengers who don’t bring any carry-ons by allowing them to board right after its most elite fliers and ahead of others in economy class.

“We are continually looking at ways to provide customers with a better, more convenient travel experience that keeps them at ease throughout their journey with us,” said American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely, in a statement to NBC News.

“It’s important to note this is a limited test. Should we decide to modify our regular boarding process, we will be informing our people and our customers first.”

People wait in line at the American Airlines ticket counter in the Miami International Airport on Feb. 12, 2013 in Miami, Fla.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
People wait in line at the American Airlines ticket counter in the Miami International Airport on Feb. 12, 2013 in Miami, Fla.

The experiment, which began several weeks ago, is taking place at four airports: Austin-Bergstrom International, Washington Dulles International, Baltimore Washington International and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International.

Huguely declined to say what kind of feedback the airline has received from passengers so far, noting only that “data is still being analyzed.”

One traveler who experienced the new procedure at Austin’s airport on Thursday gave it a thumbs-up.

“There was no back up on the jetway, this was a big thing that I noticed in particular," said Lisa Carlucci Thomas, an innovation consultant and frequent flier. "It just felt like the whole process went much more smoothly."

In 2008, American became the first U.S. airline to charge a fee for the first checked bag. Other carriers soon followed, with the extra charges becoming a revenue bonanza for the industry.

U.S. airlines took in more than $2.6 billion in bag fees in the first three quarters of 2012, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

But at the same time, delays caused by passengers scrambling to find space for their carry-ons during the boarding process have been costly for carriers, said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.

“A plane sitting on the ground – not only is it not earning money but at some airports airlines pay for gate time by the minute so the longer you’re on the ground, the more you actually pay to the airport,” Hobica said.

“(Checked bag fees) may have had unintended consequences... this is perhaps why Southwest for all these years has given you two free checked bags.”

Many planes are not equipped to handle all the luggage passengers bring on board, Hobica added, and some airlines have even had to spend money to install larger overhead bins to accommodate travelers who are trying to avoid checked bag fees.

Then, there’s the psychological toll, with the struggle for overhead bins leading to altercations between passengers and a tense atmosphere on flights, Hobica pointed out.

Will early boarding be enough of an incentive for fliers to ditch their carry-ons? The jury is still out, Hobica said, reminding travelers that this is just an experiment.

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