August 19, 1999
TOM BEARDEN: It's a drearily familiar moment in air travel: The mad scramble for carryon baggage space. Unwilling to wait at the carousel to retrieve checked baggage, many people haul as much of their belongings onboard as they can get away with, and try to cram it all in the overhead bins. But what goes up sometimes comes down.
PATRICIA CONNELLY: When the plane landed, I was exiting into the aisle, and I had my head down because I'm 5'8", and I heard the door open, and wham. It was almost spontaneous that I got walloped with a big canvas bag. It was just like -- like somebody, you know, blew a firecracker, it just happened so fast.
TOM BEARDEN: Five years after that accident, Patricia Connelly is still struggling to live a normal life. She suffers pinched nerves, tightened muscles, and intermittent, unpredictable pain in her hands. She is forced to use lightweight cookware, and has to stand on stepladders to reach shelves because stretching and reaching are almost impossible. The accident, aboard a United Airlines 757, ruptured three disks, the flexible pads between the vertebrae in the spinal column. Eventually two disks were surgically removed, and three vertebrae fused with a titanium implant. Connelly once had a successful career as a chiropractor, so she's especially aware of what happened to her back.
TOM BEARDEN: How did it affect your professional life?
PATRICIA CONNELY: It wiped it out.
TOM BEARDEN: How so?
PATRICIA CONNELY: Chiropractors use their upper extremities and their neck for looking down, for pushing, for pulling, and I can't do that any longer.
TOM BEARDEN: What happened to Trish Connelly is less of a freak accident than you might suppose. Independent safety experts estimate that as many as 4,500 people a year are injured by falling baggage. Our own research, based on court documents, indicates that's a credible figure, making carryon baggage the biggest single cause of passenger injuries today.
DR. DAVID A. THOMPSON, Professor Emeritus, Stanford University: That's sort of like one 747 crashing every month with everyone injured-- not killed, of course, but everyone injured.
TOM BEARDEN: David Thompson is a former professor at Stanford University who has served as an expert witness in several of the many lawsuits that have grown out of these accidents.
DR. DAVID A. THOMPSON: That's a significant issue. The problem is it sort of happens in onesies and twosies spread out over all airlines over the whole year, rather than having the significant impact of a whole plane full of people crashing.
TOM BEARDEN: As part of his work, Thompson has analyzed the mechanics of a typical bag injury.
DR. DAVID A. THOMPSON: The spacing of the overhead bin and the position of the seat is such that the bags fall almost directly, following a pure ballistic trajectory onto something near the center of the person sitting on the aisle. If that is a significant object like a hard-sided briefcase with sharp corners, or a computer case, something that's heavy, weighing ten, twenty pounds, it falls about a foot and a half in about 300 milliseconds, and winds up causing a really significant injury to a person sitting in that seat, either on the center of their head or perhaps bounce -- glancing off their head and on their shoulder.
TOM BEARDEN: None of the airlines we contacted would discuss baggage injuries with us. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't keep statistics on the numbers of incidents, and the airlines aren't required to report them. The FAA acknowledges that its current carryon policies are based purely on anecdotes. Margaret Gilligan is Deputy Associate Administrator at the FAA.
MARGARET GILLLIGAN, Deputy Associate Administrator, FAA: We don't have what we would consider scientific data about the number of bags that are coming in, or the number of bags any individuals are carrying, or the kinds of incidents or accidents that are occurring with baggage, or the kinds of injuries people may be getting. But we were getting a lot of anecdotes from the flight attendant organizations, from the pilot organizations, from the operators, and what we've learned is that first of all, most of these injuries are very minor. That's not to downplay them, but they are bumps and bruises, to a large extent, although there have been some very serious injuries, and we look at those very closely.
TOM BEARDEN: Our own research shows the airlines knew far more about the problem than previously disclosed. Injury data produced as evidence in personal injury lawsuits has been trickling out despite protective orders designed to keep some of that information secret. Court cases move slowly, and some of the data is two to three years old, but experts believe it provides a credible indication of what's going on now. Documents made available to Dr. Thompson show that United has been tracking carryon bag injuries quarter by quarter for about a decade: 25 people were hurt in the first quarter of 1990; 175 in the third quarter of 1994. In 1992, a United safety engineer wrote a memo stating that the rate of injury had increased 184 percent between the first and fourth quarters of 1992. By 1992, United was even breaking the data down to track injuries from briefcases, wheelies, and starting in 1994, laptops. In a different lawsuit, American Airlines reported it had 361 claims for compensation from falling baggage between 1991 and 1995. That's claims, not injuries. The actual number of injuries was probably larger, and American said even that list of 361 claims was probably incomplete. As the data emerged, some of it came to the attention of Dr. Leo Rozmaryn, a Maryland orthopedic surgeon. He did a statistical breakdown of the available figures for one airline. Despite its limited sample, it is one of the few scientific studies of who's being hurt by falling baggage and why.
DR. LEO ROZMARYN, Orthopedic Surgeon: Any kind of bag, the average injury rates were about 20 percent to 40 percent for standard suitcases and/or laptop computers. However when people put oddly shaped objects in such as picture frames, sporting equipment, wheelies, strollers, wheelchair parts, the injury rates rose to approximately 80 percent, notably with deep lacerations, eye injuries, head injuries for the most part.
TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Rozmaryn also looked into changing passenger behavior that he believes has contributed to the rise in baggage accidents. Before deregulation, air travel was a special event-- no overhead bins, just shelves for hats and coats. It's a different world now, as Rozmaryn documented surreptitiously on videotape. More and people are flying, and they're carrying on more and more baggage. What did your tape show in terms of what went in the overheads?
DR. LEO ROZMARYN: Very large bags. All manner of shopping bags full of souvenirs and duty-free items, glass that obviously had not been packed, liquor bottles that are stuffed into a shopping bag, and the whole thing just gets rolled any old way. You can't stand the bottle up in the overhead compartment, so the stuff is lying on its side, where, during turbulent episodes of flight, they can simply roll around. And all it takes is for some guy to open up -- to open up the latch, and the next thing you know, the bottle's on somebody's head.
TOM BEARDEN: The lawsuit documents show that three major U.S. airlines not only tracked the rising number of accidents, they also looked for some kind of technical fix. None was ever installed. By 1995, United Airlines was concerned enough to start testing so-called secondary restraint systems. In memos, United's safety personnel discussed the merits of elastic straps and cords across the front of the bin. United also looked at netting systems, including one system of its own design, and another one made by a British firm called Bridport. The Bridport system uses a pair of inner doors with netting to hold bags in place after the outer bin door is opened. If a big is in danger of falling out, passengers can see it before they open the inner door. United Airlines tested the Bridport system on two aircraft beginning in 1995. In memos, United's safety personnel said they found generally favorable responses from passengers and crew. But by 1997, United engineers stated that the Bridport system "had not proven to be effective." Last year, United's lawyers told a court: "There are some devices out there that may prevent a particular type of incident, but our tests and evaluations have shown that that increases the chances of another type of incident. At about the same time, Delta Airlines actually bought enough Bridport doors to outfit its fleet of 737's, but ran into problems when it tested them on two aircraft. Gale Braden is a former safety inspector with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board who served as an expert witness in a case against Delta.
GALE BRADEN, Aviation Safety Consultant: I think they have about $2 million to $3 million worth of these Bridport systems in a warehouse that they would really like to use, and I think they are making a concerted effort to properly test them and get them functional to where they -- the maintenance is not so high on them that they're going to cause more problems than they cure.
TOM BEARDEN: Delta Airlines declines to talk to us on camera, but confirmed that the Bridport doors are still in storage. They wouldn't say when or if they might be installed. At about the same time, British Airways had a very different experience. BA installed Bridport doors on their 747 and 757 fleets in 1994. The airline says reports of spillage incidents on its 757's fell from 26 in 1995 to five in 1998. American Airlines, which reported more than 300 injury claims in five years, did not test any restraints. One American Airlines engineer told a court: "We have not done any feasibility studies for the possible engineering solutions because we believe that this was a personal performance issue."
AIRLINE STEWARDESS: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome aboard. We have a full flight tonight.
TOM BEARDEN: That's the approach favored by the airlines and regulators both: The passengers are both the problem and the solution. Beginning in 1992, most airlines began warning passengers about shifting bags, and some airlines began restricting the number and size of carry-ons Last December, United Airlines went one step further and installed sizer templates at the security checkpoints of several major airports. If the bag's too big to fit through, it can't be taken aboard. Initial reaction in Denver last Christmas was pure exasperation. But a United spokeswoman said limits on bag size would improve safety.
KRISTINA PRICE, United Airlines: If you put bags in the overhead bins that are way too large and they tumble out and hit someone on the head, it could harm customers, passengers, and so forth. So that's a guarantee that we'll increase safety in that.
TOM BEARDEN: The Federal Aviation Administration also favors passenger-based solutions. It's publishing brochures to teach passengers how to load the bins more safety. The small number of outsiders who have looked at baggage accidents say relying on passengers to solve the problem is ridiculous.
DR. DAVID A. THOMPSON: What you have is an airline who understands the problem, who has experienced thousands upon thousands of these incidents, blaming a naive user for an accident which they really have very little control over.
TOM BEARDEN: The most visible critic of the current policy has been the Association of Flight Attendants, the biggest flight attendants union.
PATRICIA FRIEND, President, Association of Flight Attendants: Passengers have brought in an unimaginable variety of articles into the airplane cabin, including a stuffed moose head, a mini-refrigerator, a set of free weights, and a big-screen television.
TOM BEARDEN: Their concerns first came to a head in 1997, when the union hosted a conference on carryon bag problems that brought victims out in public for the first time.
GERALDINE MARGOLIS, Passenger: The steward opened the overhead, and everything went black for me. I literally saw stars.
TOM BEARDEN: Last year, the union petitioned the FAA to set an industry-wide rule for carryon baggage. The agency is examining that petition now, but currently thinks a single standard is unworkable.
MARGARET GILLIGAN: It doesn't necessarily address all of the complexities, and it doesn't allow for the fact that there are very different kinds of airplanes and airplane configurations that operate in the system.
TOM BEARDEN: In fact, some airlines, like Continental, are installing larger bins on their aircraft, and advertising that fact as better customer service. The flight attendants say the government shouldn't allow airlines to compete on matters that affect safety, and that one baggage rule is needed to avoid confusion. But FAA's Gilligan asserts that passenger education efforts are working.
MARGARET GILLIGAN: We already have seen results. We do see that passengers are being more careful. They are complying with the limitations that the airlines have put in place. And those limitations, we think-- the airline limitations-- will go a long way to addressing the kinds of injuries that have been suffered so far.
TOM BEARDEN: What do you think of the FAA's response to this?
PATRICIA CONNELY: I think they're not taking any responsibility. It almost sounds like a bogus association. Let's face it, the FAA is supposed to be there for protection, and the FAA is the only agency that the airlines will listen to.
TOM BEARDEN: As the FAA puts its public education campaign into effect, it concedes it has no firm numbers on accidents, no plans to require accidents to be reported, and no firm numerical yardstick to measure when that campaign might or might not be successful. Are the other efforts at changing passenger behavior, the templates and rules and announcements, working? Is the number of injuries being reduced? Only the airlines know for sure, and they aren't talking.