One Of The Airline Industry’s Greatest Mysteries

Filed Under: Travel

I just wrapped up a sub-48 hour trip to Germany, during which I got very little sleep. While dragging myself out of bed and to the airport this morning at an ungodly hour I walked through my hotel’s lobby and for a second thought I was in the airport’s lost luggage department. There were about two dozen massive suitcases, and then two dozen rollaboard suitcases, all neatly lined up.

I looked up and saw a crew from a major Asian airline. An airline where crews just have a 1-2 night layover and then turn right around. And it got me wondering, what the hell does each crew member do with two suitcases for such a short trip?!


Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the system that non-US airlines have. At US airlines, flight attendants carry on all their bags, and many times they have a handful of bags each which look more like an RV than a carry-on. And that’s frustrating, since in many cases they’re competing with passengers for limited overhead bin space.

I prefer the non-US system where crews have only a single carry-on and are checking their bags. So, it’s not harming me in any way… but I just don’t get it!

Yes, when Singapore Airlines’ crews work a Singapore to New York trip it lasts about eight days, as they have layovers in Frankfurt, New York, and then again in Frankfurt. I get checking a bag there.

But if you’re just doing a two day trip, what do you really fill both a carry-on and a huge suitcase with? Surely they’ve gotta be running import/export businesses, or something…

I mean, I literally live out of a 20″ carry-on. Admittedly my wardrobe is about as diversified as a cartoon character’s, but still…

Anyone have any insight, or find it equally odd?

Yup, these are the questions that keep me up at night… šŸ˜‰

  1. I’ve noticed this on some of the european carriers too–specifically KLM. They all have a big checked bag (like 22″-26″) and a rollaboard. When I worked retail in my late teens, I used to work at a big chain near where the Lufthansa crew stayed. They would always come in and always buy denim, although certainly not enough to require luggage that big.

  2. While in Shanghai our tour guide warned us that clothing made in China is much cheaper to buy in the US than it is in China. I’ll bet each crew member takes an empty suitcase to the west to by clothing to take back to the east.

  3. scott, that doesnt make any sense… do you have any idea or any clue from the tour guide, as to why that might be if it truly is the case? even if china was a rich, western country to support relatively higher prices, it wouldnt make sense.

    so I find what that guide has to say even more perplexing. now I’ve traveled about a bit, touring the markets and bazaars of Asia, Mideast, North Africa etc… and lemme tell you, stuff is dirt cheap even if the clothes etc. are fakes (brands.)

  4. Adam, I think the tour guide mentioned by Scott spoke some truth. This is especially so for branded goods and exported goods (if they are available in China, they would be more expensive) to first world. Although many top fashion brands have their factories in China, even the discounted prices in China are more expensive than the normal price in the western world. That’s why you see lots of Chinese buying large volume of branded goods from the west.

  5. @adam, ‘stuff is dirt cheap even if the clothes etc. are fakes (brands).’
    Therein lies the truth…both Scott and Adam are correct. If you want cheap ‘made in China clothes,’ you go to China and buy them. Cheap price and cheap quality, no matter what brand is plastered on the side. If you want the real thing, however, like all up and coming Chinese do, then you do not buy the fake stuff. You buy the real thing, which as Scott pointed out, is indeed more expensive than in the West. So yes, still made in China, but much more expensive than you would buy elsewhere. Which is why Chinese love going to the US, HK, and pretty much everywhere else outside of country to do their shopping.

  6. Adam, I have to mostly agree with Scott on this one. This is particular true with western brands that are made in china. Those good are literally shipped to the US and back to China. In most cases those western brands is more ranked in Asian markets than it is in western countries. Take Ralph Lauren for example, the same shirt you buy at an outlet for less than $50 could easily be doubled in China since it is valued as a more luxury brand. Inferior goods might be a different story

  7. Most likely filled with big brand cosmetics and handbags, maybe a couple of bottles of red as well. With tax refund, it costs significantly less than what they would otherwise have paid at home, and hence room for profit. Can’t help but wonder how they get through customs though. They’d probably need a secret channel, or maybe there’s no such thing as customs on their part of earth.

  8. maybe some of that illegal ivory from africa for the chinese trade that was written up in yesterday’s ny times?

  9. I can’t speak for other airlines from Asia but can speak based on friends–>crews from TG. Many of my friends I went to school with in Thailand now work for TG. Weird, but likely because they are all competent English speakers (went to international school, attended english as primary language university).

    It’s a combination of things:
    1. TG Int’l flight crews require multiple uniforms on one trip (traditional Thai silk dress/suit + modern uniforms)

    2. Thais generally don’t wear same clothing twice for cleanliness purpose/mentality. It’s a socio-cultural thing I guess. Pretty much everyone wears their shirts/pants/dresses once and it’s go into laundry basket. No one really wear same clothing twice before laundry. It’s pretty much disgusting in Thai culture to wear same clothing items multiple times on multiple days. Simply because it’s hot in Thailand, one sweat a lot. If we were to wear same clothing items more than once, the smell and the stain are just unavoidable. So we are used to packing multiple items…to the point where we pack too much. I don’t have a scientific way to prove this but I can tell you this much, I have never met one person from Thailand who doesn’t overpack due to fear of not having enough clean clothing items for the trip (men or women).

    3. You’ll be surprised at the amount of Thai snacks and ready to eat foods (like cup noodles, bottled juices, finger goods etc) TG crews pack for their trips. They literally have Thai instant noodles party in the hotel wherever they layover. I see tons and tons of my TG friends snapping pictures on Instagram of their cup noodles party.

    Again it’s a socio-cultural thing. Thai people snack a lot. Think about your experience when you are in Thailand, how many street foods vendors do you see when you walk around in just one block length? I don’t know how our bodies cope with it but we snack endlessly. Yet, Thais are generally pretty petite, especially the women. Most of my female friends in Thailand can eat more than I can and yet, they are super petite. The next time you fly TG, peak into crew mezz/galley between services and see when they are not snacking!

    4. Yup, the shopping requests from friends, family members and small fashion shops. It is well known (though not publicly discussed) that TG crews is one of the major “delivery” methods for popular or brand named products from destination like Frankfurt, Paris, LA, Hong Kong and Seoul. There’s even a website that sell products online….all these products come from TG crew carry it back. It’s a massive little shopping community. A lot of the Thais (and ofcourse many other SE Asian countries too) have a thing for trendy fashion and stuff. Materialism is alive and well in SE Asia.

    Some of TG crews earn extra money doing this. Believe it…. buying unique products from oversea (and duty free) and sell on web in Thailand for more money.

    You’re asking how do they get away with duty and custom agents when back in Thailand? Heard of bribing corruption?

  10. Imported goods are highly taxed in China.
    For example, mainland China tourists buy the new iphone 6 in Hong Kong to save some money.

  11. And I can say with confidence that they’re not crew of a Chinese airliner. First, China do have customs at every intl airport and they would definitely be screened if things are as dramatic as Lucky described. If the total value of everything one person’s got exceed the limit which is about USD 1000, they will have to pay taxes. And also a couple of years ago, a flight attendant who had been consistently buying cosmetics to sell for profit(she has her own store for that matter) for a few years ended up being charged with smuggling.

  12. being a flight attendant doesnt pay that well. 99% of the time, its a side business and all the crews know it, including the pilots

  13. Just out of curiosity what is your typical outfit? Cords or khakis with an oxford or something more casual like jeans and a t-shirt?

  14. Depending on the airline, some of them require a standard luggage set as part of their uniform. Just because they are big doesn’t mean it’s full.

  15. @Norman I have family friends that work exclusively US flights from China on air China. The purser knows customs officials well enough that they just turn a blind eye to the stuff they carry in. Every time they work the Houston flight, my mother takes them to Costco where they load up on food as well as to the outlet mall where they purchase gifts for family and friends. (As well as customs officials šŸ˜‰ )

  16. I’m just an international business person and do the same thing: some good are either much cheaper, better quality, or only available in certain parts of the world. I buy them either for home consumption or as gifts. And there’s no better gift (business or personal) than something nice or good that’s simply not available to the giftee.

    BTW, this is why I avoid airlines with overly restrictive bag allowances, like AA had for business class until a few years ago. And people who only travel with carry ons really miss out.

  17. For TG,
    On the outbound flight from BKK, the cabin crews usually carry some local packaged food/Magazine/Newspaper for Thai Shop abroad (Assuming they fly to city with high number of Thai residents such as SYD, LHR, LAX)

    On the inbound to BKK, they carry Brand name items, gadgets, cosmetics to Local Thai Shop.
    Thai Custom Control is infamous for corruption and bribery, so I leave it to your imagination of how they smuggle those products in large quantities into Thailand.

  18. “even if china was a rich, western country to support relatively higher prices”

    @adam: Starbucks charges MORE in Beijing and Shanghai than in an average city in the US. It’s seen as an aspirational brand; people are willing to pay more. This applies just as much to clothing. The vast majority may be rural and poor, but we’re still talking about a country of well over a billion; a couple percentage points being able to afford these goods is still a lot of people.

    “In China, when you’re one-in-a million, there are 1,300 people just like you.” -Bill Gates

  19. One of my greatest mysteries were why people travel with only hand carry luggage. Its so much more comfortable with checked bags… I’ve traveled over a million miles and only twice has a bag not made it on the same flight as mine

  20. my ex works at ANA and she would often bring stuff back for friends who request stuff. They all check in luggage and bring their personally purchased RIMOWA’s on board along with the flight bags. other than that, shopping. They have down time, they dont care to do much else but shop, go eat, and come back home.

  21. @Greatest Mystery

    If you travel all the time for work, lets just say you fly twice a week, 45 weeks in a year. That’s 90 flights per year.

    Using just some modest estimate numbers here okay. If I were to check my bags every single flight:

    -Estimate time waiting in line to check my bag ~15 minutes
    -Estimate time for check-in agent to process and tag my luggages ~10 minutes
    -Estimate time waiting for my luggages at Baggage claim ~ 20 minutes

    Total waiting time in line/processing/waiting/retrieving my luggages per flight = 45 minutes

    90 x 45 = 4050 minutes —> 67.5 hours. That’s worth a week of holidays somewhere! or for a workaholic, a whole week (plust some) of productive hours for work!

    67.5 hours of dead time waiting! No way I will subject myself to that. I can accomplish so much in 67.5 hours! Maybe you have 67.5 hours to spare in your busy life @Greatest Mystery. If you travel enough to earn over million miles, I can’t imagine you are someone who can spare 67.5 hours for non-productive moments.

    I for one don’t like wasting 67.5 hours of my life in a year to just standing around accomplishing nothing.
    I travel for work and pleasure and definitely still try my hardest to stick with one carry on and one personal item. Well, … and a lap top bag. And another shopping bag.

    I never check my bag unless I don’t have an option (like extended trip, etc).

    time = money OR spare time = holidays!

  22. I have to fly very often privately and my budget is limited. Since I fly to (or have transfers in) places that have very cheap products (tabacco, alcohol etc.) compared to European countries, I always buy much there and sell it at home to friends for 50% of the price it would cost in their home. They are happy, I am too since nearly 50% of the flight is paid like this (yes, I’m smuggling also some cigarettes, I nearly never get caught, and if I do, I did the math!).
    If I would find a channel to buy this stuff even more expensive to other people, I would earn even more.
    I always travel with just hand luggage, this is less suspicious at the duty control, and for sure, you’re much faster!

  23. @YVR604Miler-while your argument is almost convincing you have to apply apples to apples. based on your math you only get to take 45 minutes twice a week. you can’t just add all those minutes into one ball since @GreatestMystery isn’t waiting all of them at one time. so cancel those vacation plans and the time = $ isn’t that much.

  24. @Steven L.

    Please, Starbucks is nowhere near “aspirational brand” in China, at least not in Shanghai.

    Yes it’s relatively more expensive here. But there are lots of people in there because people can afford it. I don’t understand how a coffee shop with more than 50 people in it can be called “aspirational”. šŸ™‚

  25. @Eric Thanks for sharing this! I do not doubt that they can and do buy things for themselves and friends and that’s absolutely fine and legal. But 4 dozen suitcases are just too many for a flight crew and we are probably looking at three pieces per person. This is what would likely get them in trouble going through customs if they’re flying China. The situation of bribery I would say is a much better than average Asian countries, so you don’t want to count on that.

  26. @Ray

    Sure, fair point. But even for a single episode of 45 mins, that’s enough time for me to finish a good amount of work that generate me money and investment.

    45 mins I won’t be wasting on non-productive cost, bottom line.

  27. I agree with YVR604Miler. I’ve been traveling for business and haven’t checked a bag in 25 years – I can easily make 7 days with my 22 Carry on and backpack – after that, I just send my stuff to the laundry.

    I see plenty of others on my team still having luggage lost – just last week one of my guys spent a week in MXP washing his crap in the hotel sink, because Delta lost his bag – he got it back the day before his flight home – all the while having to PAY for the privilege.

    For me, it’s the wasted 20-45 minutes a pop, 3-6 times a month waiting around with all the others in baggage claim – I’ve got better things to do. Also, it’s absolutely freaking awesome to hit the “no checked baggage customs green line” in Dallas without having to wait in long ass customs lines.

  28. Since you fly all the time you should have talked to a few crew members and answered the question prior to posting…

  29. my aunt is sq flight crew and the reason for the need of huge amounts of baggage is shopping. As her niece, she always tells us her schedule and I’ll ask her to help me get stuff from xxx city because it’s most of the time cheaper.

    European cities are to buy branded designer goods back for oneself or family & friends cheaper and tax free. With the tax discounts it can be up to almost 50% cheaper.

    US cities are for “American” products, the Gap, Old Navy, etc. My aunt loves SIN-DME-IAH because Houston has really good outlet shopping and she basically shops for her entire family’s wardrobe for the rest of the year.

    Asian cities like HK, Seoul, Tokyo are to basically shop and eat. My aunt does her hair perm in Seoul because she says the hairstylists are better and cheaper than Singapore.

    Australian/NZ cities are to basically buy fresh produce or snacks. Also, ever since now I study in Melbourne, whenever my aunt gets a MEL flight (not often) she helps me bring stuff from SG since they easily bypass customs.

    Middle Eastern cities she says most of the time it’s too hot to do anything so crew usually rests in the nice fancy hotels compliments of the company. Once in a while they do go for desert tours.

    And that is why US flights are the most wanted by crew because of the great shopping and the long time you get to stay in. For eg, my aunt can stay in Houston for almost 5 nights.

  30. We need those bags because we shop! However, for my 7 day flights I pack one 22 inch bag and in it are one pair of jeans, one pair of shorts, 2 t-shirts, 2 polo shirts, 1 light sweater, 1 swim suit, 1 fleece, 1 dress shirt, 6 uniform shirts, 7 underwear and undershirts, sneakers, flip flops, 7 pairs of socks, and one Hello Kitty stuffed toy. šŸ™‚

  31. People who live in the US have no idea that the US is the cheapest place in the world to buy almost anything…. even when I was back in Canada, everything was substantially cheaper in the US.

    Now that I am living in Asia it is worse.. there is less variety and size options are non existent and it is horribly expensive.

    So yes all these people are just buying stuff, for themselves, for their friends and sometimes to re-sell. Also SQ crews have LONG stays in the US, we are talking about 4 to 6 days in NY for example… what else are you going to do? especially women.. lol I hate shopping…

  32. “If you want the real thing, however, like all up and coming Chinese do, then you do not buy the fake stuff. You buy the real thing, which as Scott pointed out, is indeed more expensive than in the West. ”

    You mean the pair of Ray-Bans I bought in Cambodia for $12 are fake? šŸ˜€

  33. FYI: your advertising supplier is now showing video ads on this page that are set to auto play with the audio on…

  34. There are several reasons why crews travel with those big suitcases. I worked as a cabin crew member for over 10 years and this is my experience with the luggage.

    As mentioned above some airlines give these suitcases as part of the uniform and the crew isn’t allowed to travel with anything different.

    Most of the crew also pack for several days as they never know what changes may come (flight delay, diversion,…).

    Crew also like to feel at home when they are away so a lot of them take food with them, but not only that, they often take their favorite pillow or blanket with them to make sure they get a good night sleep.

    Shopping is indeed in some destinations the reason why they need a big suitcase.

    Long layovers (+3 days)are reason enough to take half of your wardrobe with you.

    As you see there are many answers, but like someone already mentioned; it’s not because there’s a huge suitcase that it’s full……

    Hope this gives you some peace of mind in order for you to get some rest at night instead of overthinking stuff like this ;p

  35. According to my observation (family working in airlines as pilots), they do carry ALOT of books or manuals to study. Especially when a quarterly oral exam is near. Even though lots of manuals are PDFs, pilots still prefer physical print outs..

  36. Korean flight attendants fill their suitcases with ramen, as they’re unable to eat foreign food. Kimchi, if it’s allowed by customs. I kid you not.

    During winter months, they carry heavy coats and warm cloths. Their uniform may also be a heavy coat on top of that. Some carry a spare uniform in there. Also, laptops, and other electronics are thrown in there, as are shoes. A lot of the time, the suitcase is half-full.

    My knowhow comes from dating a Korean flight attendant, and hanging out with many others during my time in Seoul as well as Abu Dhabi.

  37. same with the BA crews @ JFK, they each check in a 28/29 inch hard case on wheels, yet they only have one nigh layover in NYC before they head back the next night to JFK. Fm what i gather, BA crews looooove shopping in NYC.

  38. I believe what one commenter said is correct…For foreign crews like the one you are speaking of, it is part of a “set” that the company has them travel with…As for the domestic crews that are carrying on their luggage and taking up space onboard, lets look at it logically, not selfishly: most of us on here do not want to check our bag regardless of what our travel itin looks like, so logically, neither does a crew working 2-4 flights to get to their destination and have a 10-16 hr rest, no…???And quite frankly, the bigger problem here is not the crews, its the airlines and TSA allowing passengers on with more bags then is allowed, larger bags then is allowed, and many people not wanting to use the space under the seat in front of them…

  39. I agree with what other commenters have said. A lot of things, especially clothes, is a lot cheaper in the US than other countries (even Asia or Eastern Europe). Add on top of that various sales, promos, gift-with-purchases, etc. and shopping in the US for yourself or family & friends overseas is a no-brainer.

    From accounts of people who had worked at various stores in the Houston Galleria mall, I know that a lot of foreigner visitors shop there; even if you have to buy additional luggage, it’s worth it.

    A little advice to those who travel to Houston — Dillard’s is a great place to shop and there’s one across from the main Galleria building (covered parking as well). If you come to Houston regularly, you should be able to time it and make it to one of the regular 30-40% off all clearance items sales.

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