Bag design features

What does the connoisseur look for in a bag? Chewing gum? Half-finished lollipops? The previous seat occupant's last meal? No: the professional bagophile examines bags according to the following criteria:
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Size

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Material

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Construction

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Opening

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Closure

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Editions

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Instructions

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Airline identification

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Manufacturer

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Language

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Multiple uses

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Condition

Size

How big does a barfbag have to be? Considerations include:

Cost. Big bags are costlier than small ones. Small ones are more expensive than no bags at all (but see below). 

The risk of kinetosis (motion sickness) on board. This depends in turn on a host of factors: the amount and quality of food provided, the size of plane and flying altitude, local climatic conditions, and the type of passengers. Monarch, which ferries charter passengers on drunken binges to sun-kissed Mediterranean resorts, provides a large bag. British Airways, which aims at the experienced business traveller with a hardened stomach, provides standard-sized ones.

The cost of a clean-up. Wealthy carriers with new or redecorated planes make sure they conserve their investment by providing lots of roomy bags. Airlines with older planes and poorer cash flow make do with midget bags -- or no bags at all. 

The size ranges from a massive 250 x 385 mm (National Airlines) to an itsy-bitsy 100 x 161 x 72 mm -- a mere 1.16 litres (Riau Airlines). 

The standard size of bags, used by Swiss baglomerate ELAG and represented by Crossair here, is 125 x 237 x 80 mm -- nearly 2.4 litres. 

Material

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Paper

Most bags are made of paper coated on the inside to make it waterproof. Some authorities say this coating has bactericidal properties, so should not be brought in contact with leftovers, half-sucked lollipops and such like, that the user wishes to consume later. Others recommend that surplus bags in fact be used for this purpose (see the Uses page for more).

A small number of bags are made of blotting paper (Aeroflot) or high-grade glossy stock that seems to have been left over from printing coffee-table books (GMG).

Plastic

A wide variety of plastics are used in bag manufacture, ranging from heavy-duty triple-strength industrial polymers to flimsy, translucent plastic film (the see-through nature of these bags enables users to inspect the contents). Some bags have the type of plastic printed on them (usually HDPE, whatever that is) to enable recycling. 

Paper with plastic liner

A few paper bags contain a plastic bag as a liner (Philippine Airlines, Yangon Airways).

Double plastic

Seat pockets on Monarch planes have been known to be stuffed with an HDPE plastic bag inside another, transparent polythene bag. Double strength bag for a particularly eventful flight?

Construction

Flat base ("block-bottom")

The most common basic design, known in the bag trade as "block-bottomed". The base provides valuable additional space for airline logos or inspirational messages. About the only disadvantage of this design is that the base must be folded up for storage, and can get caught in the seat pocket, costing precious milliseconds during an emergency. Comes with or without an extra piece of paper glued to the base as reinforcement.

Pointy bottom ("wedge")

Used in both paper and plastic bags. A simpler construction than its flat-based rival, but suffers from the major disadvantage that it's impossible to stand the bag upright. Either lie it down (make sure it's securely closed first) or give it to your seat neighbour to hold.

Plain

More common with plastic bags than with paper. The narrow mouth can make aiming difficult. 

Open gussets

A variation on the pointy bottom design above. 

Opening

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None

The bag comes ready to use -- and occasionally already used. The standard on most carriers. 

Thumbhole

Trims milliseconds off the time needed to open a bag in an emergency (USAir).

Tear-off tab

Intended to ensure you don't end up with a bag used by the previous seat occupant (almost guaranteed to make you sick). Popular on Chinese airlines. Some passengers have discovered it's possible to booby trap such bags by slipping a wad of chewing gum (an effective adhesive) into the side of the bag. 

Perforated tear-off strip

A technical advance intended to thwart chewing-gum saboteurs. Significantly increases the amount of time needed to open the bag. Common on East Asian carriers (JAL, Thai). The perforations on some Indonesian carriers' bags seem to have been made using a sewing machine without thread (Garuda).

Handhole or handles

Used only on plastic bags that double as shopping bags. May require care to avoid hitting the handhole instead of the interior of the bag.

Closure

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None

Very common, especially on European carriers. The passenger is supposed to fold the top of the bag over twice to seal it. To avoid spillage, it's best to hand to the cabin crew soon afterwards, or perhaps drop under a seat as far from your row as possible. 

Lateral tabs

The tabs jut out on either side of the bag. They provide secure closure, but often get tangled and damaged in the seat pocket.

The standard on North American airlines such as Braniff, Northwest and TWA. Also found in India (Indian Airlines). 

Vertical tab

Overcomes the problem of tangling caused by the lateral tabs above. Very common (see Eva Air, Istanbul Airlines). The tab can rip off, leaving the client with no secure method of closure (see None above). Innovative airlines stem this serious cause of environmental degradation by putting the tab in the gusset.

Wire attached

A low-tech alternative. The wire is incorporated in the seam of the bag during the manufacturing process, or is taped on afterwards. On poorly finished bags, the end of the wire sticks out and will poke you in the eye during a violent retch. Common on Indonesian airlines (Garuda, Merpati). Often found on plastic bags. Kish Air uses a flat metal tab rather than a piece of wire.

Wrap-around wire or string attached

Even lower-tech, common on plastic bags. See Gorkha Airlines and Dinar Lineas Aeréas for fine specimens. Lumbini Airways uses an elastic string rather than wire.

Peel-off sticky strip or pad

A relatively new phenomenon. Peel off the backing and fold the bag to seal. Remember to drop the backing strip into the bag to avoid littering. See Bangkok Airways, Delta and Iberworld for examples. Sometimes the sticky pad (square or round; blue, green or white?) is the only thing that distinguishes one bag from another (LOT). TAP Air Portugal's sticky strip is more interesting than the bag itself. 

Drawstring

Used only on plastic bags, almost exclusively in Latin America (Interbrasil, LRC Taxi Aéreo, Total).

Plastic strip attached

"Tear ends, pull to center, tie around", say the instructions. Not sure I understand what to do (National Airlines ).

Plastic fold-over strip

A strip of plastic, attached to the bag only at the ends. I still haven't worked out how this is supposed to work (TANS Perú, Aerocontinente). 

Ziplock

The obvious bag-closure mechanism? Used to store bits of dead animals and plants in refrigerators worldwide. But I don't know of a single barfbag that uses this technique. Time to patent its use for the world of bagology?

Update (July 2003): Too late: Trigana, an obscure Indonesian airline, has begun to use ziplock bags.

Editions

Some carriers regularly issue new bags. The most prolific are the airlines whose bags double as photo-processing mailers (Qantas, Ansett): they have to update the price and "special offer" deadline frequently to prevent photographers from hoarding bags. It has the opposite effect on bag-collectors: frequent updates mean more variants to collect.

A frequent stimulus for bag redesign is a corporate image makeover. Cathay's bag now incorporates its brushstroke logo; British Airways now has the flying ribbon, and British Midland adopted the ritzy name bmi.

Some airlines have been moving steadily upmarket in their bag design: both Air China and Hainan Airlines have switched from flimsy products to swisher designs. One hopes their planes have undergone similar rejuvenation.

Others change their design frequently for no apparent reason. Perhaps that's why Swissair went bankrupt?

Some airlines offer different bags for different classes of passenger. First-class passengers on British Midland used to get a "Diamond Service" bag along with their meal, while cattle-class at the back of the plane made do with the regular version. Visit the toilets, and you may well find a stack of plain white bags (Gulf Air, Qatar Airways).

Switching bagmaking allegiance (or mergers among bagmakers) is a further reason for different bag editions. Watch for a different manufacturer's logo on the base or in the gusset.

But perhaps the most frequent cause of a fresh design is that the current batch has run out. The airline places a new order with the manufacturer, but no one can find the old design originals. So the type is reset (check for subtle differences on the typeface), the logo re-laid out (different size or placement?), and the new batch printed (different paper, ink colours?). 

Instructions

Some airlines provide no instructions: they expect their passengers to know how to use a barfbag instinctively. Others go overboard with detail -- telling you to remove the tear-off strip before use, how many times to fold the top of the bag after use (and in which direction), and what you may and may not use your bag for.

Some bags are euphemistic: "Waste" or "For motion discomfort". Some are more direct: "Airsickness bag".  

Some provide helpful little diagrams: no cigarettes, no liquids, how to seal the bag, etc. (British Airways, Malaysian Airlines, South African Airways). Nepalese airlines are the only ones that actually show someone vomiting into the bag - see the Buddha, Sita, Skyline and Yeti bags in the Gallery.

If you do choose to use your bag for this purpose, it's advisable to obtain a fresh one for your collection.

There is little standardization in instructions among airlines, resulting in confusion, frustration and spillage. The professional collector is eager to spot confusing instructions. Some bags say "After use fold towards you". On both sides. Others tell users to "fold away from you". Some airlines want you to leave your bag on your seat; some want you to put it on the floor (so other passengers can step on it?). Still others want you to hand it to the stewardess -- almost never to a steward: evidence of gender discrimination? 

The trend towards sealed bags with tear-off strips has spawned imitators who don't get it quite right. Garuda and Star Air have both issued unsealed, unperforated bags with the instruction "tear of here" (note the spelling error, too).

Airline identification

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Prominent logo

Examples are Aero Lyon, Cathay and Harlequin. Clearly the work of a highly paid professional image consultant.

Repetitive logos

Sterling, CSA and Air Florida are good examples. The product of a bored secretary trying to fill in space. Occasional bags like Meridiana and Volare manage to overcome this impression and scale the heights of haute design.

Logo only

Perhaps the majority of airlines offer a plain (usually white) bag with a logo stuck on it somewhere, maybe with some instructions. The work of a secretary with limited imagination. Some airlines (KLM, SAS, Deutsche BA) have been known to print their name or a tiny logo on the base of the bag or in the gusset.

Logo present

Look hard enough, and you'll find a logo, but it's lost among a welter of other information. Photo bags (Qantas, Ansett, Crossair), pictorial bags (such as the floral tributes from China Airlines and Eastern) and bags with lots of instructions (British Airways) fall into this category.

No logo 

Don't these airlines have any pride? No logo or other airline identification, but with some printing, such as "After use fold toward you", or the bagmaker's name (Canjet, United). Derided as "generic" by the baggist community. 

Plain white

Bags without any printing at all. Provided by callous airlines with scant regard for either their passengers' in-flight information needs or their own corporate image, these bags are almost universally shunned. A lot of North American and African airlines fall into this category (American, Uganda Airlines).

Click here for an in-depth analysis of airline logos.

Manufacturer

Often concealed in the gusset or on the base. Check the bagmakers page for details. Know of any bagmakers not listed? Send me their address!

Language

English being the language of the airline industry, it's a rare bag that doesn't include English if it has instructions in more than one language. A surprising number of bags from non-English-speaking countries have English only (eg, Icelandair, KLM).

Some bags have different language on each side (Martinair, Gulf Air). Avoids design clutter, and helps the cabin crew know in what language to address you. 

The world leader in number of languages crammed onto a bag is 11 -- by British Airways.

Language mistakes are not uncommon. British Airways once missed off a whole paragraph in its French instructions, and Delta managed to make three mistakes in eight words of German. 

Multiple uses

Some bags have multiple uses:

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Telephone directory (AeroContinente). Enjoyed using your bag? Take it home, and call the airline office numbers listed to book another flight.

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Advertising. Alitalia bags feature an ad for a medicine to suppress motion sickness.

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Container for leftovers (Continental). Take the rest of your meal home for your dog.

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Photo mailers (Qantas, Balair CTA). Try not to mix film and spew.

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In-flight entertainment (Maersk, Aegean Airlines). The cheap alternative to an in-flight magazine.

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Shopping bag (National Airlines). Select a fresh bag before putting that duty-free silk tie in it.

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Seat reservation sign (Continental, Sun Country). Still more effective is to throw up on your seat just before an interim stop.

Click here for other uses not sanctioned by the International Air Travel Association.

Condition

It's a rare bag that is in absolute mint condition. Many are folded or creased when they are stuffed into the seat pocket, and further crumpling occurs when you stuff the bag under your jacket so you can smuggle it off the plane. Tears, writing, ethnic food stains and chewing gum are also common. 

Ancient bags sometimes turn up after decades of use. I have a old Wardair drawstring plastic bag that someone had used as a toiletry bag for 15 years.

Some collectors try to validate an otherwise generic bag by getting the pilot to sign it, or the airline office to stamp it. Such bags are frowned on by serious collectors. 

Personally, I like my bags to have character, so I welcome donations in less-than-mint condition. 

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