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Why it might be a good idea to bring your measuring tape on your next flight

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If you think you have a pretty small suitcase that will be allowed as carry-on, think again.iStock

Recently I had a very unpleasant surprise at New York's JFK airport. 

Just before reaching the TSA agent's podium, a red-jacketed person (who I believe was hired by American Airlines as a subcontractor but not an actual employee) insisted that I put my suitcase in a bag sizer. Now, I've had my carry-ons measured once or twice before, but only at the gate, never at the ticket counter, or before I reached security. 

And before you jump to any conclusions, I'm all for carry-on bag size restrictions.  But keep in mind that I've taken this same 21-inch-long suitcase into the cabin on almost every major airline and quite a few not-so-major ones. Its exact measurements are 20 by 15 by 8 inches, or 43 linear inches in total. Anyone looking at it would think, “that’s a pretty small suitcase.” And it is.

To make a long story short, it was rejected as "too big" since the American Airlines bag sizer measures 22 by14 by 9 inches. Yep, it was that one inch on one side, even though the other dimensions were actually smaller than the limit. So I was sent back to a very long line to check in my bag, where I was told that, "the FAA is cracking down on us." And I barely made my flight.

What I didn't realize, because it's never been an issue before, is that American and other airlines are enforcing and tweaking carry-on restrictions like never before, literally to the inch. 

But no wonder I'm confused. Just last week, I received an email from American that stated, and I quote, "You can bring a carry-on bag within 45 [inches] combined dimensions (including odd-shaped bags). … In lieu of a carry-on bag, you may choose to bring on a soft-sided garment bag of up to 51 [inches] in size." There's no mention of the 22 by 14 by 9 rule. So according to that, my 43-inch bag should have been fine. But that email seems to conflict with American's website where it specifies the 22-inch long by 14-inch wide by 9-inch tall standard.

And it's not just American where things get tricky. Prior to March 2014, United stated in its contract of carriage that “Carry-on Baggage must not exceed the Maximum Outside Linear Dimensions of 45 inches (114 cm) (height + width + depth), which includes its wheels and handles, and may not be longer than 22 inches in any single dimension.” It now reads "Carry-on Baggage must not exceed the Maximum Outside Linear Dimensions of 9 inches (22 cm) x 14 inches (35 cm) x 22 inches (56 cm), which includes its wheels and handles." 

That might seem like a minor change, but it does mean that, for example, a 45-linear-inch bag measuring 21 by 14 by 10 that would have qualified under the old rules does not qualify under the new rules.  It's that 10-inch dimension, which is one inch bigger than the 9-inch limit.

Are airlines quibbling over just one inch? Yes. 

Just ask my Twitter follower @nokidizzle who was sent back to check in a 44-linear-inch bag, measuring 21 by 15 by 8 inches, on Delta and was told he owed a $100 bag fee on his international flight.

The problem is that a lot of so-called "carry-on" bags are 15 inches wide, even if they're just 20 or 21 inches long.

What's going on here? Is it just a grab for more checked bag fees? Not entirely.

In the case of American, the check in agent was not lying. The FAA really is cracking down. 

Although the FAA doesn't mandate carry on bag dimensions, they do require that airlines enforce whatever restrictions they publish. And since American is merging with US Airways, the FAA is scrutinizing every aspect of the combined airlines' operations, including carry on bags. FAA agents are actually lurking around TSA lines at American's JFK terminal, watching to make sure that bags are size-checked.

So two things are worrisome here. One is that people will miss flights if they aren't forewarned. Another is that if this heightened enforcement continues, a lot of bags sold as carry-on compliant will become useless, unless their owners check them in.

But there's some good news.

Not all airlines have the same size limits. Southwest, Virgin America, JetBlue and Frontier have a more generous 24 by 16 by 10-inch carry-on limit (although Frontier charges for carry-on bags if you book its lowest fares).  

More good news: United says it will be installing new bag sizers that actually measure a full inch larger than the 22 by 14 by 9 inch standard, so those 15-inch wide bags should squeak by. And a lot of this heightened enforcement is a result of busier summer travel, so maybe the bag police won't be as strict come fall. Maybe.

Even so, if you're flying on American, Delta, United or US Airways soon it might be a good idea to find your measuring tape.

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.