Bon voyage! How to safely lift carry-on luggage into the overhead bin

My dad travels to and from his Mexican retirement house frequently, and most of the time, he tries not to take any luggage at all. This is a luxury, to have a full set of clothes and toiletries in both locations; avoiding all that manual handling is also an ergonomic measure. Carry-on luggage got heavier when the airlines started to charge for checked luggage. And now that airlines are starting to charge for carry-on luggage, we are all wondering how much we can carry in one “personal item”.

I don’t fly often, but I’m ashamed to admit that my work backpack, loaded with my gauges, tools, and laptop, weighs 10 kg. I used to use a wheeled bag plus a smaller backpack, but I found stairs to be a real challenge.

If I traveled with just my backpack (assuming I could squeeze in a change of clothing and a toothbrush), I would need to handle it several times:


      • From the table (where I store it) to my back


        • From my back to my trunk


          • From the trunk to my back


            • From my back to a chair at the gate


              • From the chair to my back


                • From my back to the aircraft armrest or seat


                  • From the seat to the overhead bin


                    • and then all of these steps in reverse order at my destination.

                  That’s at least 14 lifts in one day!

                  Getting a backpack on and off can be challenging, but let’s assume for now that I’m usually able to “back” into and out of it, so I never lift it with one hand.

                  The hardest lift on my list would be from the seat to the overhead bin. This lift is particularly awkward since:

                  – the bins are high

                  – the reach may be obstructed by the seats

                  – bags are not designed to be lifted with 2 hands, and

                  – people and other bags may be in the way

                  If I only do this really tough lift once, and if I can get a two-handed grip on my bag, the Liberty Mutual tables (ergonomics guidelines) suggest that the maximum I should lift overhead with a bit of a reach is 14 kg. So technically, my 10 kg bag is within guidelines, but I know from experience that this is a difficult lift. It could be bad for my reputation as an ergonomist to suffer an injury while lifting, so I’d better think this through.

                  What could I change?


                      1. I could take less stuff. I usually carry everything that I could possibly need, every day. But sometimes I can go weeks without using my grip gauge, which on its own weighs almost a kilogram.  I tend to accumulate erasable notebooks and pens. I could re-pack, so I take only what I need for the project.

                      1. I could split my things into smaller bags for easier handling. Some wheeled bags have a second piece that slides over the handle, allowing you to pack two smaller bags rather than one big one.

                      1. I could choose a bag that is light when it is empty. My empty backpack weighs 1.5 kg – the lightest one we could find when we bought them.

                      1. I could choose a backpack that is easy to lift with 2 hands. I can lift my backpack with 2 hands, but I have to be deliberate about where I place my hands.

                      1. I could sacrifice my leg comfort and store the bag under the seat in front of me. This might not be possible in some aircraft seats, but I do this when I can. I pack my bag so I can put my feet on top of my bag without breaking anything. (Yup – I’m short-legged, so I have more legroom than you might. But my short stature also means the overhead lift is that much more difficult for me.)

                      1. I could check my bag, or sky-check it.

                    Can you lift your bag overhead at home?

                    It’s such a simple test. If you cannot lift the bag overhead at home, don’t take it. Please don’t expect the flight attendant to come to your rescue, and that big guy who looks like he could bench press a house could have a frozen shoulder for all you know. My dad doesn’t lift his own bag, but he’d probably help you if he thought you needed a hand. If you do get help, try to participate in a two-person lift, unless the helper prefers to do your dirty work alone.

                    How to lift the bag overhead

                    If you’ve packed a heavy bag, and you can’t put it under the seat, this is the best we can suggest:


                        1. Before you board, put your valuables in your bag or coat, and zip up your pockets. If your bag has compression straps, snug them up so the load is compact.

                        1. At your row, slip the backpack from your back onto the backrest or armrest of the aisle seat. Stabilize it there. (Hopefully no one is sitting in the aisle seat yet!)

                        1. Rotate the bag so it’s wide (not tall); this allows you to start the hard part of the lift in a better position, with two hands.

                        1. Grip the bag with two hands, and lift the far edge of the bag onto the edge of the overhead bin.

                        1. Push the bag into the overhead bin. If the bin is deep enough, rotate the bag so the top handle is closest to the aisle (wheels to the back of bin). Newer aircraft have taller bins, so your bag may fit on its side – if so, be sure to place it that way, to allow more space for others.

                        1. If possible, put your coat on top of your bag, and slide your belongings to the far left or right to make space for the next person’s items.

                      Do you have other ideas for more ergonomic travel? Let us know!

                      Happy travels!

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