By DAVID KOENIG
AP Airlines Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) -- If you're traveling light, you can board earlier on American Airlines.
The airline said Thursday that people carrying just a personal item that fits under the seat -- no rolling suitcases -- will be allowed to board before most other passengers.
American said that the change will speed up the boarding process and allow flights to take off sooner, helping the airline improve its on-time performance.
Airlines have been seeing a buildup in boarding times since they began charging fees for checked baggage as more people fight for limited space in overhead bins.
American tested the new boarding procedure at several airports earlier this year and began applying it to all flights Thursday. Passengers carrying just a personal item -- a purse, backpack or computer bag that will fit under the seat -- will board right after Group 1 premium passengers and before boarding groups 2, 3 and 4.
The airline said that it will let passengers check a carry-on bag at the gate at no charge. That means savvy travelers will be able to move up in the boarding order and avoid checked-bag fees -- $25 for the first bag, $35 for a second on flights within the U.S. -- although they'll have to retrieve their bag at baggage claim after they land.
Kevin Doeksen, director of customer planning for American, said the change speeds up boarding, because fewer passengers stop in the aisle to hoist a bag into the overhead bins. The difference is about two minutes per flight, "which doesn't sound like much, but it adds up throughout the day," he said.
If the change results in fewer big bags being rolled on the plane, it could reduce the number of flights on which the overhead bins fill up. When the bins are stuffed, gate agents or flight attendants must ask passengers in the last boarding group to surrender their bag for gate-checking -- an awkward situation all around.
Competition for bin space has also made travel more stressful. Passengers in the last boarding groups often creep forward and jockey for position to be the first in their group on the plane.
"They're anxious because they've got a big roll-aboard (bag with wheels) and they're worried about having no space in the bin," Doeksen said.