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Attention business travelers: Commence shrinking your suitcases

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(Bloomberg Business) — Charge airline passengers to check a suitcase and you can hear the overhead bins groaning with big, overstuffed carry-ons.

To lighten the load, which snarls boarding, the global airlines’ trade group will now encourage travelers to buy a new, smaller bag. At the close of its annual general meeting in Miami, the International Air Transport Association introduced an initiative to standardize the size of carry-on bags and smooth the boarding process.

The standard would be 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches or smaller, so that “theoretically everyone should have a chance to store their carry-on bags on board aircraft of 120 seats or larger,” the group said Tuesday at the conclusion of its gathering. Bags of this size will come with a small logo: IATA Cabin OK.

A dozen airlines, including Emirates, Lufthansa and Qatar Airways, have signed on, Tom Windmuller, an IATA senior vice president, said in a video explaining the initiative. Another 30 to 40 have expressed interest. “This is  a program that’s designed to make things easier for everybody, first and foremost for the passenger,” he said. 

Don’t look for any of the major U.S. airlines to sign on anytime soon. Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. carriers’ trade group, Airlines for America, was quick to note in an e-mail that the initiative “is NOT a requirement for the industry.” She said the bag dimensions cited by IATA “are NOT an industry standard, as making dimensions an industry standard would be anti-competitive.”

Moreover, U.S. airlines are spending billions of dollars now to revamp aircraft interiors with slimmer seats and larger overhead bins, and culling scores of 50-seat regional jets, which offer the least bin space. They are far keener to discuss their cabin improvements than to begin campaigning for the adoption of slightly smaller carry-on bags.

The checked-bag fee dates to the spring of 2008, when American Airlines led the industry down the once-unthinkable path of charging customers to use the cargo hold. Crude oil had surged to more than $125 a barrel and blindsided airlines already struggling with an unstable economy. Seven years later, Brent crude futures are trading at about $65 a barrel and U.S. airlines have consolidated into four behemoths that carry more than 80 percent of domestic traffic.

But the checked-bag fee endures, having become a $3.5 billion annual foundation of airline profits. It, too, can slow boarding and lead to countless angry confrontations between gate agents and passengers.

“I’m going to have her job,” one irate passenger seated near me on a Delta flight fumed in March after a prolonged battle with a gate agent at the Miami airport. His bag was checked at the gate.

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