Continental announces a ‘downsize’ for carry-ons starting November 1

I’ve never really objected to the checked baggage fees that most airlines now have in place.

As someone who never checked luggage in the past, doesn’t travel with small children (or anyone else, really, for that matter) and typically travels light, I saw the fees more as an incentive for people to make choices in their packing and lighten a plane’s load. If one can’t, or doesn’t want to, then pay the fee.

But recently several major carriers have been reducing the size of acceptable carry-ons, and this does irk the hell out of me, because it smacks of a money grab. Clearly airlines are making good money out of the baggage fees — enough, I’m guessing, for them to be aware of all those other passengers that are choosing to carry-on. If airlines can make it more difficult for those of us that fit into this category, well there’s even more money to made.

In recent months, American Airlines, United, Delta and Northwest have all reduced the size of acceptable carry-ons.

The latest is Continental, which recently sent a note to travel agents that starting November 1, it would be enforcing strict new size restrictions for carry-ons. The 51 linear inches that used to be kosher will be reduced to 45 linear inches, or 9″x14″x22″.

New sizing bins will be installed at all of Continental’s domestic counters. Continental’s carry-on downsizing is effective for all tickets; it doesn’t matter when you purchased them.

Is a scant six inches really that big a deal for your packing? Probably not. And it certainly doesn’t amount to much space savings (or weight savings) on board. Which is why such downsizing should piss you off. Increasingly, people who carry-on are going to be scrutinized at check-in and efforts are going to be made — rightly or wrongly — to force you to check that carry-on, for a fee.

And this should make you mad even if you never carry-on. Why? Because — and we probably all suspected this to begin with, on some level — it proves that the airlines’ claims that all these nettlesome fees that surfaced this year were necessary to combat record high fuel costs were at the very least only partially true. In reality, these were obvious and never-before-explored ways to make money for many airline companies who have rarely been able to turn a profit, even in good times.

Passengers were asked to understand how record-high fuel costs were forcing airlines’ hands. Yet in recent months, as the price of oil has dropped significantly due to the financial crisis, there do not seem to be many airlines hurrying to reduce their taxes or fees, in a good faith effort to put an extra buck or two back in their passengers’ pockets and rebuild traveler loyalty.

US Airways is holding its carry-on size to a 51 inch dimension.

Southwest Airlines, that maverick of the industry, is not changing the size of carry-ons it allows. That’s not surprising: The airline doesn’t have checked baggage fees, fuel charges or any other hidden costs.

Southwest is consistently the most profitable airline in the domestic industry. How does it do it?