Delta Expands a Test to Take Your Carry-On Bags Onboard for You


Anyone else out there think that Delta is bored? With a fantastic on-time operation that’s solidly profitable, it’s increasingly looked like the folks at Delta have been trying to find ways to spend their time. In some cases, the airline has veered into tangents that most people don’t care about, like the flight against the Middle East carriers or the reauthorization of the Ex-Im bank. But we’ve also seen some really solid efforts to try to creatively tackle some customer pain points. One of those tests that’s getting press lately is the so-called “early valet” program where someone from the airline will take your bag onboard for you. I give Delta credit for trying this out, though I’m skeptical that it’s sustainable.

Delta Early Valet

For any airline, finding a way to speed up the boarding process is important. After all, an airplane sitting on the ground doesn’t make any money. If it can reduce its turn times enough, then it might be able to squeeze in more utilization of its airplanes every day. That’s good news for everyone. But it’s not easy to do.

Over the last few years, airlines have shot themselves in the foot in this area. They’ve introduced policies that have actually increased boarding time, not decreased it. Think about checked bag fees. As soon as the airlines implemented those fees, travelers instantly began trying to bring on the biggest bag possible. Since carry-ons didn’t cost extra, the incentive to avoid checking a bag was obvious. This resulted in gridlock on the airplane as people tried to lug these monstrosities down the aisle and hoist them into the overhead bins.

This was obviously a problem, so how could it be fixed? There’s the obvious economic disincentive. Start charging for carry-ons and people stop trying to bring everything on. And since carry-on space is more desirable than belly space, you can charge more for that carry-on. That’s exactly what Spirit has done, and that worked wonders. It sped up its boarding process and bins are never jammed anymore. Problem solved. But for the legacy airlines, that has so far been forbidden fruit. It’s one of the only things still separating the legacy carrier experience from the low cost carrier experience.

So what else could the airlines do? Well they could start enforcing carry-on size rules. But that actually slows down boarding even further since it turns the gate agents into bag cops. Next? Aha, make the bins bigger! The airlines figured if they couldn’t charge for carry-ons, they’d have to find a way to accommodate them. That worked, but there’s still a problem. People don’t know how to use them. They put their bags in sideways when they should go in the long way. Or they rest them on their back instead of on their sides. And of course, they still have to slowly lug those bags through the narrow aisles in the first place. Boarding is still slow, even with bigger bins.

Delta, apparently having the time and resource to deal with this problem (which is great news), put together an “early valet” program which it first tested last summer on some departures from Atlanta and LA. This year it’s being expanded to departures from all the Delta hubs, but not on all flights. The program started on Monday and runs through August 31. (Though technically that is a “tentative” end date so it may continue if things go well.) How do you know if you’ll have it? You won’t know until you get into the gate area. But the airline is looking for domestic flights on larger aircraft (your best chance is on 757s or 737-900ERs) that are full with shorter turn times.

I spoke with Delta spokesman (no, he did not change his gender as suggested by the AP article) Morgan Durrant to get a better understanding of how this is going to work.

It sounds like customer service agents will be in the gate area asking customers if they’d like their bags pre-boarded. This isn’t just for elites. It’s for anyone on that flight. For those who are interested, the bags will be tagged as pre-boarding bags and put on a cart. The customer service agents will take them down before boarding begins and place each bag above the seat of each traveler. I can only assume these agents will be hired based on their Tetris high scores, and they will know exactly how best to pack these bins to the fullest. Once the traveler gets onboard, the bag will be there waiting. Getting off the airplane, nothing changes.

Morgan says that Delta did see improved boarding times last summer, so that’s good news. But I’m still somewhat skeptical. How many extra people do you need to have working at the airport to do something like this? And is it worth the cost of paying them? Also, what about the liability when an agent breaks or steals something? I’m told that it’s treated like checked baggage in that case, but airlines always tell you to keep your valuable in your carry-on because they have no or limited liability in checked bags. This could get ugly and expensive quickly.

I can appreciate what Delta is doing here. It sees a pain point that impacts both the airline and the customer, so it wants to fix it. I just have a hard time seeing how this could be a sustainable permanent solution.

[Original airport photo via Tupungato /]

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45 comments on “Delta Expands a Test to Take Your Carry-On Bags Onboard for You

  1. The obvious solution to your question is for the airline to include in their next contract negotiations for the flight attendants to perform this service under the improved efficiencies clause. No food service, now just concentrate on loading hundreds of carry-ons.

  2. Long time DL Platinum. Love the operational excellent, hate the SkyMiles program. Now that that’s out of the way…

    I’d love this to work, I guess. Though I’m rarely in back and even when I do I board first. If it speeds things up and helps the FAs reduce the insanity of boarding, it’s worth it.

    I just ultimately there are two kinds of flyers: The kind who fly a lot, know the system, and aren’t the issue for the most part. And the kind who don’t fly a lot, or don’t seem to know the system if they do. I commented over on Ben’s blog about this. People in Economy often seen befuddled when they first get into the plane. They’re in row 30-something, and stop in First Class searching for the rwo number, as though the rows start with number 23 and not 1. If that confuses them, they are going to be completely shocked when a gate agent tries to take their bag. They haven’t separated what they need during flight into the smaller bag. They won’t believe the bag you’re taking will be above the right row.

    I dunno. Delta is smart, and I’d love it work – it’s just hard to see how it will.

  3. First off: kudos on the Grand Budapest Hotel image.
    I know there is a likely a simple answer to this, but why don’t airlines make use of all possible boarding doors? Roll up some stairs and let folks in the back board from the back. Down the jetway, then down the jetway stairs, a quick walk to the back of the plane and up some stairs. Have an agent on the ground pointing the way to the back of the plane. (“It’s the door by the tall part of the plane dear.”)
    Safety? FAA rules? Liability? Security? All of the above?

    1. I would love to see them use all doors. Only time I have ever seen both door used was a Gol domestic flight from CGH to BSB, after several gate changes eventually ending at a bus gate they announce that the flight was now open seating. Once the bus got half-way to the plane they announced that both front and rear doors would be open. As soon as the bus stopped and the doors opened it was madness, I’ve never seen my mother move so fast. Luckily as I’ve never seen a US based airline do open seating we wouldn’t have that issue. it’s most likely a security issue allowing people off the jet way onto the ramp, although it does still happen for some smaller aircraft.

        1. Yup was just going to cite that Denver incident. Does Tampa still do this? They boarded from the read (via stairs near boarding area and jetway stairs) a few years back.

          I love flying Southwest to Burbank. — head straight the the back seats for easy deplaning.

    2. Virgin Australia uses rear stairs routinely on domestic flights. They can board a 737-800 in 15 minutes flat. And they do charge checked bag fees, though people tend to bring on somewhat fewer bags in Australia. When I lived there, it was always a shock upon returning to the States to see airlines take 40 minutes to board a 737-800.

      1. Same with Qantas. They don’t do it all the time, but often enough that it’s not noteworthy.

        It probably helps that Australian weather is forgiving for much of the year.

    3. And Horizon Airlines does this routinely on their Q400s (though overhead bin space isn’t an issue because there are no usable overhead bins anyway). The board awfully quickly too.

    4. People also aren’t fans of walking down stairs to the ramp.

      Plus it requires additional folks on the ramp to watch the passengers.

      We had a broken jetbridge at ORD once, they pulled up stairs and I swear there were 10 AA employees watching us.

    5. Ignorant – Lots of talk about this, but I’ll add my two cents as well. I believe the primary issue is security. If you let people walk out on the ramp, then you need to do a lot to make sure people are watched closely and don’t go elsewhere. In a place like Long Beach, where they board using stairs/ramps no matter what, it’s not much more of an issue to open up the back door as well. So you see it often in places where they already do board from ground level whereas in those places where they have jet bridges, you don’t. At least, that’s my best understanding.

  4. It might help with gate side seating too as people love to put their bags on the seat next to them taking up more non-people gate space??? !!I think the cart to collect bags (like EU trains) might work if they had an area to keep the cart and then roll it off to gate area for peeps to find their bag !!The (where is my overhead bag )dilemna may stillbe there so getting odd may notbe so good … and do not get me started on the skymile changes i just read the new MQD changes … it goes on and on,,,

  5. I just used this service in LA yesterday. I have ambivalent feelings about the program. As a Silver Medallion and low man on the totem pole my only perk is zone one boarding. Previously, I didn’t have to worry about getting my bag on. In talking with the agent, if enough savvy travelers in zones three through five avail themselves of this service the early boarders may wind up with a problem. The agent admitted that may be true. On boarding, the bin over my seat was full. Boarding did seem to go a little bit faster.

  6. Has anyone looked at benefits of more efficient de-boarding? Maybe have steward or gate agent act as enabler.Ideally the plane would have a passengers departing plane at a regular interval (15 seconds?). I have observed cases where a slow passenger can increase departure intervals to minutes.
    Mike Craft

  7. I have a (DL seasonal employee) friend who is already doing this. They are utilizing seasonal employees (a program that has been in place for years) so they’re not hiring new people just for this function. The early gate valet is a new program but they will be soliciting a select group of passengers — families with children (i.e., a mother with children and a lot of small carryon) and elderly passengers. They are NOT soliciting people with oversized, overstuffed “carryons”. If the flight attendant’s contract don’t allow them to lift few if any bags above their heads into the bins, the ground staff surely will not be doing it lest DL have a lot of on-the-job injuries to deal with (not likely). The bags will have a special tag that is put on with the flight number, name and seat number of the passenger. The perforated stub allows for the bag to be tagged, the passenger to get their part of the stub and DL to keep the third perforation for record keeping.
    Skeptic? If I were a gate valet am I really going to rifle through a bag on the jetway or on the airplane where flight attendants already have to be on board ? and how would I damage a bag ? The point is to get a jump on bags in the APPROPRIATE bins especially for people who ordinarily would be struggling with small children or handicapped or elderly. Give it a chance.

    1. JoEllen – They might not be hiring more people for this, but if they have enough slack time for existing seasonal employees to handle this, then maybe they don’t need to be hiring as much as they are. That would certainly be true if they rolled this out to the entire network.

      As for people rifling through bags, you have more faith in humanity than I do. While I wouldn’t expect that to be the norm, there will always be some bad apples out there.

  8. If Delta wants to improve turn times economically, just have wing walkers ready to bring the plane to the gate, and a gate agent ready to move the jet way as the plane approaches the gate.  My significant Delta experience is that this can easily be a 5 to 10 minute wait.  This would cost far less, and dramatically reduce frustration and a customer sense that Delta is not well run or just does not care.
    That said, I’m all for the test.  It would be particularly valuable on flights with many less-experienced flyers, such as flights to Orlando.

      1. Ontime doesn’t matter in that case. The 5-10 minutes is only relavent to turn time and getting rid of that delay can potentially mean the differance between an on time departure and a late one. Plus having the crews at gates cost less because it already uses current staff.

  9. Anytime you get the kettles involved the program is going to sink. To speed up the boarding process have separate boarding lines for each zone and have someone from Delta walk around and make sure people are in the right line.

  10. Maybe this isn’t obvious to me, but couldn’t this create some chaos when passengers leave the plane? There may not always be sufficient bin space for all the passengers to fit their bags into the overhead compartment, forcing the crew to spread bags out. Then once that happens, you have folks out and about trying to find their bags. I know it won’t happen all the time, but I can see it occurring.

    1. Probably depends when the overhead bin is closed. If its open as you board passengers can visually check to see their bags are in the spot above their head..

    2. SJ – Well, they say they’re putting bags only in the bins above people’s seats. But I’d also assume that if someone has their bag taken from them, the first thing they’d do on the airplane is look for it, no? I’d want to make sure it was onboard myself.

  11. I know I wouldn’t hand over my carry-on to someone to take on board for me. But then again I don’t try and carry-on a trunk as ‘underseat’ baggage like some people do. Seems to me if they can take the time to load up a cart and them walk around the airplane putting bags in over head bins, they can just start letting people board on their own.

    1. I assume they’d be collecting and loading the bags during the time while the plane is still being cleaned or otherwise prepared before they’re able to let passengers on board.

  12. To me, a much simpler improvement would be allowing passengers to check legal carry-on sized bags at the ticket counter for no fee (and perhaps printing on the boarding pass “NO CARRY-ON”). Alaska does this at least at PHL. Delta quite aggressively gate checks bags before boarding, which is another good way to handle this. And if they maintain their 20 bag delivery guarantee, I’m happy to check a bag. (I’ve never succeeded in collecting the payout from Alaska, as they always deliver the bags before the 20 minute cutoff, often before I even get to the carousel.)

    1. I would love to be able to do this, espec on trips with a longer connection. Not fun lugging a roller board 2 miles to the other side of a big airport and then having to babysit it while you sit at the bar.

  13. I could see this being valuable at hub airports where the valets can concentrate on the flights at most risk of departure delays. Those delays can have knock on effects, so getting them out as close to on time as possible would help.

  14. The carry-on bag problem could be addressed by enforcement of boarding priorities AND requiring people to use only the bin over their own seat. How many time have you waited until the proper time to board for your seat in the forward part of the cabin only to find that the jerk in the last seat has put his carry-on in the space over your head so he won’t have to maneuver it through the aisle when he exits. Of course, this means that you have to put your carry-on in a rear overhead bin and fight the crowd to get back to it when you land. My solution would have a cabin attendant directing placement of bags and treating any “unattended bag” as it would be treated in the terminal!

    1. As Cranky said, enforcing boarding priorities would slow boarding down more than it would save time.

      Unfortunately, requiring people to use only the bin over their seat is unfair. There isn’t enough space over the seats for rollaboard for everybody: typical 31” pitch has to be shared by the three passengers in each row on a 737/A320 family plane, but legal rollaboard are wider than 10”. The carry-on allowance necessarily assumes that not everyone takes a maximally-sized legal carry-on. So unless the passengers who don’t bring on a rollaboard are perfectly evenly distributed throughout the plane, there will be some passengers who legitimately can’t place their legal carry-on above their head. And this doesn’t even account for the rows in which the overhead bin is filled with crew bags and safety equipment. Where are passengers in those rows (often bulkheads with *no* underseat storage) supposed to put their bags if any bags not over the passenger’s head will be treated as unattended?

      Now, most certainly, anyone who places their bag in the bin in row 7 before walking past many open bins to their seat in row 20 should be shot, drawn, quartered, and prohibited from flying or participating in civil society again on the basis of rudeness. ;)

  15. I may be a minority, but I actually really like the gate checking of large carryon bags that happens on RJ flights, and I also like to gate check bags to final destinations when possible to do so for free.

    If an airline could gate check bags like the RJs do and then find a way to deliver the bags in such a way that the arriving pax were not crowded around the jetway as they waited for bags (e.g., cut a hole in the wall, and put the luggage cart on a lift so that it is accessible from outside the jetway), plus ban people from bringing anything over a briefcase into the cabin, I could see that helping to improve turn around. Mind you, there would have to be enough ground crew to deliver the arriving pax’ bags and pick up and stow the departing pax’ bags at the same time, but still, do that, board from the front back while the cleaning crew works towards the back of the plane, and you’re set.

  16. My carryon bag has my essentials and items not covered by airlines baggage liability, such as medications, electronics, jewelry. Not sure I want that bag out of my control.

  17. How stupid! What idiot came up with this idea? Fire them. I wouldn’t trust Delta with my life, let alone my carry-on. It’s probably the most hideous of the 3 major American carriers and the bar is probably the lowest in the world. Just wait until someone has their phone or laptop stolen. I guess this is a diversionary tactic to take the collective minds off the rape and pillage of their FF program.

    1. Oh dear, Robbo…you are really upset with Delta. There are other airlines you can fly. Please do.

  18. I could imagine some amusingly awkward conversations if there’s secondary security screening for international connections.
    Guy from El Al: Has your luggage been out of your possession at any time?
    Me: Er…

  19. Up here on the other side of the border, Air Canada recently started a new way of enforcing carry-on sizes, They’ll have staff at security and check-in to enforce bag rules instead of gate-checking these. Interesting to see how this goes, maybe something like this would work better for Delta?

    1. Shawn – Sounds like the old baggage-sizers on the security belts. Remember those? Lots of angry people there.

  20. One thing I’ve often thought they should do for carry-on is ask passengers to lift their bag to shoulder height with one arm. This would be an easy check to enforce and if you can’t lift it that high with one arm, it’s too heavy for you to stow safely and quickly.

  21. At American we have in some Latin American stations a person who comes onboard to stow carry ons for Pax as they come onboard. These flights get out quicker. If anything this seems like a proper method of cutting down time instead of this new delta method, should be interesting to see how it works out

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