We’ve all seen the viral videos of air travelers trying and failing to stuff oversized carry-on luggage into an airplane’s luggage bins. But even if you pack the right bag (here’s a handy guide to carry-on sizes), you may still find yourself wanting the occasional assist to shove a heavy load up into the bin.
When that happens, don’t rely on the flight attendant to do it for you.
“If a passenger is not able to lift a bag into the overhead bin, then the bag should be checked,” says Taylor Garland, spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. The union represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 19 U.S. airlines, including Spirit, United, Alaska, and Frontier.
That’s good advice for travelers; no one wants to hurt themselves while wrestling with a roller bag. But it’s also the main reason why flight attendants are instructed not to take responsibility for hefting bags into bins.
“Flight attendants are trained never to lift baggage for passengers because it’s a leading cause of injury,” Garland says. “In addition to the economic and health risks for flight attendants, this could lead to a delay or even cancellation of a flight.”
Indeed, most airlines often have an information page on their websites that deals with this topic. Delta spokesperson Ben Zhang points out his airline’s very specific policy, which notes that “flight attendants are unable to proactively assist customers placing carry-on baggage into overhead bins, with certain exceptions.”
However, for Southwest and JetBlue, it’s part of the corporate culture to assist passengers in stowing luggage. Southwest spokesperson Chris Perry notes via email that the airline’s attendants are allowed to assist passengers, although it’s not a requirement. “It’s part of our Southwest hospitality,” he says.
Keep in mind that “assisting” doesn’t mean actually lifting your bag—passengers should assume that the help will be a guiding hand rather than an outright powerlift. For example, “assistance” may refer to directing passengers to open bin space, advising them on positioning the bag (look for visual-aid stickers on newer overhead bins; some may indicate bags should be on their narrow side, or that wheels should be in a certain position), asking other passengers to reposition bags for better use of space, or helping with stowage without being the primary person lifting the bag.
The exception for all airlines, as Perry explains, is for customers with disabilities. “Flight attendants must assist them with carry-on items unless, of course, they specifically request the flight attendants not assist them,” Perry says. This is per the Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights, which outlines services and entitlements, including one that states “airlines must provide assistance, if requested, such as…stowing and retrieving carry-on items, including assistive devices.”
In addition to any official airline policies, there’s also a behind-the-scenes reason why flight attendants may not be so eager to lift your carry-on: Flights attendants often don’t start getting paid until the airplane door closes—which means they’re not earning any salary, nor are they covered by insurance or workers’ compensation, if they suffer an injury during boarding. But that is changing: Delta, SkyWest, and United have recently instituted forms of boarding and pre-boarding compensation.
Whether that becomes the standard labor rule or not, the best thing you can do as a passenger is to take responsibility for your own carry-on if you’re able to. As former flight attendant and TikToker Kat Kamalani suggests in one of her videos, try lifting your bag over your head at home. If it’s too heavy for you, take some stuff out. Still, if you do end up truly needing a bit of help while boarding, she says a polite request is nearly always accommodated by a flight attendant…or a nearby good Samaritan. Just remember to pack light.