Brian Major | August 04, 2016 12:00 PM ET
A Journey With Luggage
I was watching an Internet commercial for Modobag last week. I have to say the thought of speeding along the airport’s stadium-proportion walkways appeals to me greatly.
The commercial also provoked thoughts of how, like almost everything else, suitcases have changed in the last 30-something years.
I first began traveling aboard airplanes as part of work in the 1980s, lugging around one of those bags meant to keep suits pressed and wrinkle-free. You know (maybe you know), the ones that fold over in the middle and when unfolded hang vertically in a closet. The kind no one uses anymore.
It was pre 9/11, back when you walked right up to the gate (no security), showed the agent your ticket, and walked onto the plane. Whenever I was toting the suit-carrying suitcase I’d try to get aboard early as possible to beg the flight attendant to let me hang my bag in the closet-like alcove to the right of the airplane door.
About 30 percent of the time I’d encounter a friendly flight attendant who’d say “Sure, go ahead.” But most times was informed that “That space is reserved for crew, sir.”
Sometimes they didn’t say “sir.” Another time I was told the space was reserved for first-class passengers, something I was most often not.
Most times I crammed my folded suitcase into the overhead, thwarting its one great advantage. How I longed to hang up my suit-carrying suitcase in that (relatively) tall suit-saving closet. Several times I tried talking flight attendants into letting me utilize the coveted closet. I think it actually worked once.
Things became exponentially easier when after generations some brilliant mind recognized a suitcase mounted on wheels might be easier to manage.
That someone was Bernard Sadow, who conceived wheeled suitcases in 1970. The first were sold by Macy’s in October of that year, and Sadow went on to patent rolling luggage in 1972.
Yet his version, a suitcase that was towed flat on four wheels, did not quite take off (so to speak). Instead it was Robert Plath, a Northwest Airlines pilot, who in 1987 fixed two wheels and a long handle to a suitcase designed to roll upright. His “rollaboard” design remains ubiquitous today.
Today I can’t recall the very first rollaboard I purchased. But I do remember marveling with my colleagues at the time over the new bag technology. We wondered how we ever lugged those heavy suitcases around, enduring what in retrospect were ersatz airport workouts. Sadow himself later said men were initially reluctant to use rolling luggage because hefting a large bag around was a “macho thing.”
But the change to rolling luggage also reflected the continuing transition from travel’s steamship era, marked by longer voyages with luggage packed in trunks, to more frequent, faster commercial jet travel age and the resulting emphasis on mobility.
The rollaboard era has not commenced without conflict. Only a couple of years ago I found myself arguing with the gate attendant of a major airline who insisted I check my lone rollaboard suitcase.
As any frequent traveler knows, you NEVER check a suitcase unless absolutely necessary. And my bag actually fit into the rigidly restrictive “bag sizer.” But as I was informed by a blasé gate attendant, the bag did not fit “comfortably.” Also checking the bag would cost $25.
PHOTO: Does this bag look comfortable or not? (Photo by Brian Major)
The money wasn’t as big a problem as the feeling I was being hustled. Perhaps it was both. Anyway the imbroglio served to illustrate some things are infinitely better than when I started traveling professionally. Social media, for example, did not exist back then.
I would have been unable to do then what I did this time: I tweeted a picture of the bag in the bag sizer, with a caption stating X airline “wants to charge me $25 for ONE bag that fits into the sizer.”
A series of back and forth tweets ensued, with airline officials first claiming the situation amounted to a “safety” issue. Somehow I couldn’t see how one bag could compromise a commercial flight. I ridiculed that assertion, employing the dreaded term “nickel and diming.”
Within minutes I was told my bag was just fine and should fit into the overhead bins, which it did. The flight proceeded without incident, but I’ve kept the photo as memento.
Lately I’ve been wheeling around a “four-on-the-floor,” hard-sided bag that is ostensibly crash-resistant and rolls along the floor without being tilted to one side like two-wheel models. It’s great. But I haven’t completely abandoned the thought of spending $1,000 to ride around the airport on my suitcase.
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