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flight attendant helping passenger with luggageA frosted cake. A 10-gallon hat. A car muffler.

People have crammed all sorts of things—including a kitchen sink—into airplane overhead compartments, states a recent New York Times article. But for airlines, the battle of the bins has now turned into the business of the bins.

After charging fees for checked baggage (which has encouraged more and more passengers to cram everything they own into carry-ons), airlines are finding new ways to make money from the baggage brought onto planes. Overhead compartments, the article says, are valuable real estate. And these days, they’re going to the highest bidders.

If you’re stuck at the bottom of the boarding hierarchy, good luck finding room for your bag.

From airline credit cards to first class seats to extra fees for boarding near the front of the line, priority is increasingly given to those who pay. “There are multiple ways you can improve upon your boarding zone,” Andy Jacobs, the president of a candy company who travels about twice a month, told The Times. “As a diamond member on Delta, I never have a problem securing space.”

Many travelers may not realize it, but a seat ticket does not automatically entitle them to overhead space. Once space runs out, passengers must check their luggage at the gate (for free), then wait for it at Baggage Claim at their destination. Airlines are capitalizing on the fact that many, if not most, fliers are willing to pay in order to skip the extra time and hassle of claiming their bag.

Limited overhead bin space all too often leads to bad behavior

So what happens when there are way more bags than places to put them? As frequent fliers know all too well, things can get pretty nasty. “When someone gets to their row and looks up and sees something’s there, they kind of freak out about it,” Brian Easley, a career flight attendant, said. “They will throw a fit and start screaming at whoever put their stuff in their spot. We’ve had to throw people off the plane just because they refused to walk up a few feet and stick it in another overhead bin.”

Carl Hartman, a marketing executive in New York, said that on one particular flight, another passenger hauled his carry-on out of the overhead bin, then reacted with hostility when confronted. “I said, ‘No, find your own space.’ He then got really angry and just shoved my bag back where he found it,” Mr. Hartman said. “No common courtesy.”

Not only that, people will carry on anything and everything. On a flight to the Dominican Republic, Mr. Easley reported, a passenger brought a kitchen sink wrapped in a trash bag. “Luckily, we were flying a particular Airbus that has a ton of overhead bin space,” he recalled.

Robert W. Mann, an airline industry consultant, said that although new planes were designed to accommodate more carry-on bags, “there’s an infinite demand for overhead bin space,” especially as airlines squeeze more people than ever onto planes.

Airlines say that priority boarding, for a fee, is something their passengers want

Boarding when and how they want is “something our customers desire,” an American Airlines spokesman, Matt Miller, told The Times. And since there is little chance the airlines are going to do away with checked-bag fees anytime soon (in 2012 alone, domestic carriers collectively earned roughly $3.5 billion from these fees, according to the Department of Transportation), this means the avalanche of carry-on bags will continue, if not increase.

To make matters worse, not all planes are created equal when it comes to overhead space. Smaller, 50-seat regional jets are notoriously stingy with overhead bin space, and older models whose designs predate rolling carry-on bags also are less accommodating.

So before you cram 100 pounds of stuff into a 50-pound bag, especially if you’ll be traveling on a smaller or older carrier, you may want to consider paying a fee for a priority boarding zone. Or, better yet, check it!

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