Luggage designs keep on carrying on

01/20/2013 12:00 AM

01/18/2013 12:59 PM

In the 2009 film "Up in the Air," George Clooney portrays Ryan Bingham, an always-flying global businessman whose life revolves around a simple creed – travel light. The less figurative and literal baggage in life, the better.

For Bingham, slip-on shoes, airline perks and a carry-on suitcase that careens through airport terminals, slides along narrow jetliner aisles and fits easily in overhead compartments define nirvana.

Throughout the film, director Jason Reitman's obsession for luggage rarely wanes. Juxtaposed with real-world travel, the timing was as precise as a smooth landing. Several airlines first began charging for checked-in luggage a few months before the movie's release.

As a result, travel forum visitors began to voraciously discuss the carry-on issues. The conversation continues. Shortly after the movie's release, travel accessory and luggage sites began to tout their brands as traveling the "Up in the Air" way. Other manufacturers started to boast of products that could help you travel like Clooney.

The suitcase used by Clooney was a TravelPro Crew 5, a standard 22-inch carry-on with two wheels. The Crew 5 was no longer available to the public in 2009; TravelPro had already advanced several editions of the series. But the older style was used because of its longtime popularity with the movie's director and the manufacturer's reputation as the luggage of choice of airline personnel.

"We've always had emphasis on carry-on, but when the movie came out and the airlines had begun to charge, we noticed a great impact on the luggage industry," said Scott Applebee, vice president of marketing for TravelPro International. "We heard from a lot of customers who began to ask, 'What do I really need and how do I intelligently go about packing it.' "

Just as there are vast shapes, sizes and preferences among airline travelers, so too are there manufacturers whose products cater to different groups – business people, students, retirees, urbanites and those with a wanderlust for recreation.

Timbuk2, headquartered in San Francisco, introduced its made-to- order bicycle messenger bags in 1989. In 2009, it added the Commute, the first TSA-compliant bag that can open flat and pass through security without laptop removal. (Sacramento International Airport allows compliant computer laptop bags.)

The new Wingman, its larger sibling, can be carried as a messenger bag or as a lightweight (about 3 pounds) carry-on backpack. It features a padded area for up to 17-inch laptops and a compartment for running shoes or other bulky gear. Timbuk2's newest line is the Power Series, computer bags that include a built-in power supply.

"Customers are finding that airlines are getting more and more strict about what they will allow for a carry-on and many are not necessarily keeping to the maximum size allowed by the FAA," said Mike Wallenfall, Timbuk2's CEO. "Everything is getting smaller and you will likely have to pay for your bag to get checked."

George Hobica, founder and president of Airfarewatchdog.com, believes increased use of carry-on luggage in recent years has necessitated more traveler awareness. He suggests that travelers "know the aircraft type" and recommends flying on Tuesday and Wednesday, when overhead bins are often less full.

Hobica also notes that travelers should beware that regional jets have particularly tiny overhead compartments and that Spirit and Allegiant charge for carry-on luggage unless it fits under a passenger's seat.

As a final carry-on tip, Hobica stresses the importance of traveling with a bag within a bag.

"I recommend passengers carry a small fabric tote bag in their carry-on in case, at the last minute, their bag has to be gate-checked because of too-small bins or full bins," said Hobica. "That way, they can quickly remove valuables, medicines, electronics, whatever else the airline won't cover in case of damage or theft."

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