Tim Hordern

I ♥ building amazing products and teams. QA + Product + DevOps + Fast = Awesome.

Overhead Airplane Storage Design

Have you ever traveled on an airplane and seen people trying to jam their carry-on luggage into the overhead storage? There’s always someone who has arrived a bit late and and can’t fit their luggage in. Maybe it was you.

I was travelling recently (matter of fact, I’m travelling now!) and snapped this shot of an overhead luggage bin that was full after just a few people had boarded.

If we isolate each row’s luggage, this is what it looks like.

You’ll notice that the luggage is irregularly spaced, generally laid flat, with a range of styles and types of luggage. Some are carry-on suitcases, duffels, or backpacks. There’s any number of possibilities of shapes or sizes to fit into these overhead compartments.

From these photos, we could ascertain there are two kinds of people who need to use these overhead bins:

  • Time-poor travelers, such as business travelers, for whom travel is a necessity and a nuisance. They’d like to minimise the time spent loading luggage, access their luggage in-transit, and minimise the time spent collecting luggage at arrival. They need to have their luggage handy, so they can head straight off the plane.
  • Passengers with minimal cabin luggage. They could be travelling for a number of reasons but don’t need lots of stuff with them. Maybe they just want to keep their valuables (eg. a laptop or a camera) nearby, rather than checking them in.
  • Passengers with large amounts of luggage. We could term them cheapskates - in this day and age of paying for checked luggage, they’re carrying everything with them to avoid paying luggage charges.
  • Passengers with special needs, such as mothers or persons requiring medical assistance. They need to have some critical items nearby so they can get to them quickly.

So we have a range of different types of personas using these bins. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the types of users of overhead storage lockers. I’m sure we could come up with more subsets of users or better definitions of users, given more detailed observation and access to historical usage patterns.

Two things strike me about this observation:

  1. Some passengers don’t use cabin luggage at all. They barely carry anything on board at all, and if they do, it’s enough to be held in their laps or under the seat in front of them.
  2. Some of the passengers with luggage in the bins in our photo weren’t actually seated in the rows below these bins. By boarding earlier, they had taken advantage of a plethora of empty bins and have spread their luggage around. This removed some of the chance they might be told they have to check their onboard luggage items. For customers boarding after these passengers, their experience is a poor one - they are presented with nowhere to store their luggage near their seats.

This is not a new problem. Newer plane interior designs seem to ignore this truth and actually make it worse - 4 bags now fit in a space originally intended for 9+ people?! Some airlines are going the other way, and are responding to the trend by enlarging the overhead bins.

Can we design a better solution and an overall better experience for our passengers?

Let’s think up some ideas

There are definitely avenues for airlines to explore. Here’s some random ideas that we could use to better service customers.

Changing to individual, per-seat overhead bins

This is probably the neatest solution and the best for customers (you’d have a guaranteed spot for your luggage), but this is probably the worst for the airlines. As passengers begin to realise that there’s a space of a certain size reserved for them, then the amount of luggage they start carrying will expand to consume that area. And more luggage = more weight = more fuel to fly the plane = higher costs = bad for airlines.

Change to pre-paid overhead bins

This is price gouging but airlines are going to start thinking about it, unfortunately. If you want an overhead locker, then you have to buy it before hand, or pay an expensive premium (or you can check your luggage). To ensure fairness, airlines would probably have to install the individual lockers mentioned above.

Charging for access to bins during the flight

This begins to become less about price gouging and more about pure evil (looking at you, Ryanair). You could have individual lockers with locks on them - some tagged for inflight access and others not, but you can only get back into the lockers by paying for access. As I said, evil. Muwahahahaha.

Let customers give up their bins for reduced airfares

After all, you didn’t pay for it and you didn’t want it, so you should save something. This is currently what most airlines bank on for some of their profit margins. They expect that not every customer will bring carry-on luggage, so they can have smaller overhead bins, thereby allowing a slightly smaller cabin fitout with reduced plane weight. And tada, more profits! But in line with the individual overhead bins idea, you could allow customers to choose to not have an overhead bin and pay a reduced fare.

Auction house

In this idea, you let customers bid on access to bins against other passengers and the airline takes a percentage of the sale. This could drive passengers to book tickets earlier to take advantage of arbitrage (or merely to get more luggage space). For airlines, having tickets and add-ons sold earlier prior to the flight is a huge benefit, as this gives early liquidity (increased interest gain, allows for hedging, etc). For smart customers, you could bring a full load of luggage as carry-on and pay less than checked luggage.


There is the possibility of introducing or increasing advertising in bins, given that the people inside a plane are a captive market. The cost of the increased size of the bins (re-fitout costs, heavier planes needing more fuel, etc) could be borne by advertisers.

Weird and wacky

There has been some innovation in plane interior design to completely rethink the stock-standard interior design used in airplanes right now. By changing the way that people sit in planes, we can allow for passengers to have individual lockers immediately accessible (this has proven to be quite a feature in first class cabins).

Out in the left-field of idea, we could experiment with entirely flights without carry-on luggage or even entirely luggage-free flights. These could be sold on really short flights for business travellers or travellers willing to travel light. Without the space required for luggage, then you have more room in the airplane body for seating, potentially even expanding to double-decker planes (similar to train carriages) and you can carry more passengers per flight.

The future

There are lots of possibilities for airlines to try out and experiment with. I think the innovation here will come from low-cost carriers such as Ryan Air or Air Asia, who are more flexible with plane arrangements as well as flexible pricing structures. Given their non-premium fare structure, they are also better placed to operate in a lean fashion and offer new approaches (such as ‘buying’ an overhead locker) to passengers. I guess the danger there is that a new approach to airplane luggage from these carriers will be seen as another opportunity to take profits from customers. If we’re really lucky, a forward-thinking premium carrier (or airplane manufacturer) will deliver something really beneficial for customers.