Looking at the bustling bodies in an airport or the rows of seated passengers in a plane, it would seem that air travel is about people. People take business trips, visit their families, and vacation in places far away. Passengers make reservations, endure the TSA lines, and buy overpriced bagels and coffee. Passengers wait impatiently in the gate area, clump too early into boarding lines, and settle into their seats. Air travel is about people. Or so it seems.
Sometimes, if you overhear people in the airline industry talking or read frequent flyer message boards on the web, you'll see the shorthand PAX for passenger. But, dig a little deeper, and another slang acronym might pop up: SLC. Self-Loading Cargo. The first-class businesswoman and the grandparents on their way to visit their new grandchild are all just luggage full of organs instead of poorly-folded shirts. People can cause trouble—they may be pushy, won't put away their cell phone, or spill their tiny coffee—but mostly they take care of themselves. Despite the occasionally overbooked flight, everyone on a plane has a seat and a destination and, as cargo, are logistically accounted for.
Walk around an airport while looking down in front of you, and you'll see what air travel is actually about: luggage. The carry-on is the most important passenger aboard the plane. Sure, the paid First Class fare and the Diamond Medallion members get priority boarding, but the bag follows in tow regardless. The business class bag gets preferential treatment: the overhead bins in which it rests need only accommodate two passengers instead of three or four. And no other bags are allowed up there, for fear that an overly-friendly plebeian duffle may spend the flight rubbing up against a Tumi or Rimowa. And a business class traveler will never have to worry about gate-checking their bag.
Whereas checked bags were once the norm—an expected service that freed the traveler of hauling heavy luggage through the airport—the financial situation faced by the airline industry caused companies to start charging for this service. At $25 a bag, with tens of thousands of passengers a day, this seems like a great idea. But instead, it has caused the self-loading cargo to have their own self-loading cargo. One of the primary draws of the Delta American Express credit card is that bags receive special treatment. A free checked bag breezes through the online check-in kiosk while the second class paid bags await their fate in long ticketing counter lines.
Perhaps most illustrative of luggage primacy is the boarding process. Every passenger on most airlines has an assigned seat, a ticket that guarantees a physical spot that cannot be occupied by another body. And yet despite this guarantee, people pile up in front of the gate as if queuing for limited availability concert tickets at the box office. While some may be ignorant of the boarding process, most know that while they have been promised 16F, their carry-on bag has not. There is not enough room on most planes to accommodate a Maximum Legal Carry-On sized suitcase or duffle for each passenger, let alone the odd shapes of the multitude of bags. Every person, no matter their shape, is forced like a peg of Play-Doh to fit into their square hole. But overhead bins fill up, bags become separated from their owners in other parts of the cabin (or worse, the horror of being separated with gate or planeside checking).
The luggage companies have not done passengers any favors with their constantly fudged numbers. Like a Price is Right contestant these companies attempt to get as close to the maximum carry-on size without going over. But sometimes the dimensions measured are internal, which may cause a bulging bag to exceed the maximum. A half-inch here, an inch there, wheels whose length are not factored into the number, and the varying sizes of overhead bin space have made carrying on a bag a daunting experience. A seasoned traveler is not someone who has racked up a half-million miles. A seasoned traveler is someone who has learned how to efficiently pack and has bought an appropriately sized bag.
We have undervalued luggage's experience of air travel. My eBags 22-inch ballistic nylon upright has its own stories. It experiences most everything I do. It scoots through security lines and is subject to an invasive screening, revealing its innermost secrets. It knows what it's like to fit into a tight spot and idle time at the Sweetwater Tavern in Concourse B of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. It has experienced the disappointment of a missed connection, of a last minute gate change, of the early hours in O'Hare before even the staff has arrived. And it has felt the tranquility of the warm Hawaiian sun, the cobblestone streets of beautiful Vienna, the sameness of every Hampton Inn, and the squeals of the Boston metro system.
The airplane has significantly impacted the movement of goods around the world. As John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay detail in Aerotropolis, the desire to send packages quickly, to fulfill retail inventory requests, to exchange important documents, and ferry people globally has created an astounding logistical network. If we give cargo autonomy, conceiving of it as having needs and wants of its own, then the checked bag and the carry-on do it not through RFID tags and conveyer belts, but the old fashioned: clinging to a host to find their destinations.
One might say that luggage is actually just taking advantage of people. It purports to carry our prized possessions that let us experience the comforts of home away from home. But really, it's a symbiotic relationship. A TravelPro 22-inch Crew 9 rollaboard suiter is a piece of pollen. It attracts a host carrier through promises of interior dimension and the lure of ballistic nylon and ball bearing wheels that will withstand baggage handlers and hotel shuttles alike. Like the honeybee, we grab our bag and lug it across great distances, thinking that its purpose is to fulfill our own need for having sweet nectar or a silk necktie. But it's actually the bags that are at the center of the travel universe. We are merely their self-loading cargo stewards.
Bobby Schweizer is a doctoral student in the graduate program for Digital Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, co-author of Newsgames: Journalism at Play, and packs lightly whenever possible.