05/25/2015 08:20 EDT | Updated 05/25/2016 05:59 EDT

Air Canada's New Carry-On Crackdown Doomed To Fail, Critics Claim

Air Canada is once again targeting passengers who try to sneak on excess carry-on luggage. But critics claim the stepped up crackdown ultimately won't solve the upsurge in on-board bags.

That's because, they say, passengers will continue to push the limits to avoid that new and pesky $25 checked bag fee.

"Everybody just hates to be nickeled and dimed," airline analyst Barry Prentice says.

Starting at Toronto's Pearson International Airport today and then expanding across the country next month, Air Canada agents at both check-in and security will be tagging carry-on that meets size limits. Bags that don't make the cut must be checked.

Passengers not caught until they hit security will be sent back with priority status to check their offending bags.

This is Air Canada's latest attempt to police carry-on, an extension of a campaign that began last fallshortly before it introduced a $25 first checked bag fee for domestic economy flights. As expected, to avoid paying the fee, passengers started hauling more on board. 

Fee avoidance

"It's often a problem and it's been making me crazy lately," says frequent flyer and travel writer Kat Tancock. She says twice recently on Air Canada flights, there was no room left in the overhead bins for her hand luggage so it had to be moved to cargo. 

But Tancock doesn't have much faith in a tagging system. She believes some abusers will still sneak through, particularly during busy times, and that the clampdown won't change the human urge to avoid extra baggage fees.

"I doubt it will stop people from trying to push the limits, because they're going to play the game," she says. "People are always going to try to save money."

Even if passengers play by the rules,Prentice believes the carry-on chaos will continue.

The University of Manitoba professor says the crackdown may force some people to ensure their on-board bags don't exceed size limits. But he adds that passengers will continue to maximize their carry-on allowance to avoid paying the checked bag fee.

"We'll still have everybody trying to bring on as much as they possibly can," Prentice says. "Therefore, I think we'll still have the problem of [too much] carry-on.

Is it really worth it?

Air Canada and its employees are more optimistic about the crackdown. 

Michel Cournoyer, president of the union representing Air Canada flight attendants, says planes are now constantly delayed because carry-on has to be transferred to cargo when there's no room left in the cabin. 

He claims it's causing stress for flight attendants and hopes the new rules will make a difference.

"The Air Canada flight attendants are very much on board with this initiative. We realize the problem it causes and Air Canada wants to be on time for its passengers," he says.

The airline itself has faith the crackdown will lead to positive results. The company says passengers want more overhead room for carry-on and on-time departures.

"Managing carry-on bags consistently for all customers is one way that helps greatly in delivering the best experience for our customers," Air Canada spokeswoman Angela Mah said in an email. 

WestJet is already claiming victory with its own carry-on crackdown. The airline says it's been monitoring on-board luggage since it also started charging the $25 domestic checked bag fee for economy flights.

Initially, the airline saw an increase in carry-on, but "since that time we've seen guests adjust their packing habits,"  spokesman Robert Palmer stated in an email.

WestJet has no plans to step up its policing efforts.

Regardless of the positive claims, Prentice predicts turbulent times ahead. Not only does he believe the Air Canada tagging system won't solve the problem, but also, he worries it will lead to further chaos when passengers are forced to check and pay for oversized bags,sometimes having to trek back from security.

"I'm sure it will lead to more arguments and complaints and I can't think of a method of creating more antagonism and bad customer service relations than doing this," he says.

All for $25?

Prentice believes a better solution would be to get rid of the root cause — the $25 domestic checked bag fee.

"I think it's a real mistake," he concludes.

Air Canada says the latest fee is now "an industry-wide practice," and that it was one of the last North American airlines to start charging it.

Even if the carry-on chaos continues, it's doubtful WestJet or Air Canada would ever consider chucking the charge.

WestJet's net income surged 58 per cent to $140.7 million in the first three months of this year, partly due to higher fees collected from checked luggage and other charges.

Air Canada reported a first quarter adjusted net income of $122 million, the best first-quarter financial performance in the airline's history.

In March, Air Canada's CEO told CBC News that extra fees have become an essential part of the business model.

So with the $25 domestic fee likely to stay on board, it looks like overpacked passengers are left with only a few choices: cough up the cash, pack less, or take their chances. Or find another way to travel.

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