WaterField Air Duffel: Avoid the airline overhead space battle, optimize the under seat space

Overhead storage space on US airlines are inadequate and carriers prefer to charge you extra to check a bag. WaterField Designs developed a new travel bag, with the help of 1,200 customers, designed to maximize the space under the seat in front of you so you can avoid the fight for the space over your seat.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer
Image: WaterField

For the most part, airline travel in the US sucks with flawed queuing systems, limited overhead space, minimal legroom and shoulder space, and charges for every bag or snack, just to list a few reasons. In order to help travelers, WaterField gathered input from more than 1,200 customers to create the Air Duffel carry-on that helps you avoid the overhead and optimize the space under the seat in front of you.

Most of the time, the daily gear bag for my commute to and from Seattle is the WaterField Pro Executive Laptop backpack, but that isn't always the best bag for everything. I travel for business quite a bit, every week in October, and many of these trips are short 1-2 days in duration. For short trips, or those where I go longer and check a suitcase, it is convenient to have a bag on the plane that I can store under the seat and avoid having to use the limited overhead space.

WaterField sent along its new Air Duffel in early October and I've taken it on flights to and from Washington D.C., California, Florida, and New York so I was able to test it in actual situations. It turned out to be perfect for these trips and I'm convinced it is one of the best bags available for regular air travelers.

Tour around the Air Duffel

The WaterField Air Duffel stands on its own with a wide 8.25 inch base. It stands 10.25 inches tall and is 16 inches long. If you look at the standard carry-on luggage rules for domestic US airlines, 9 inches wide by 14 inches tall by 22 inches long, you see that the Air Duffel easily satisfies these limits.

On the front we have a magnetic closure on a flap with two large pockets sewn into a large front compartment. The entire inside is lined in that lovely gold fabric so you can easily find your stored items. I've been using this quick access space for earbuds, phones, and other things I want to reach without dealing with zippers.

On either end of the Air Duffel we find zippered pockets that open and close with two zippers all the way down to the bottom edge. There is some mesh on each side to keep the pocket opening from laying all the way flat down, but you can easily get a small water bottle, earbuds, tissue, passport, or other items in these pockets. These pockets are convenient for storing things you want access to when the bag is tucked away under the seat in front of you since you can access one pocket without moving the bag out at all. These pockets lie flat since the interior of the pocket goes inside the large main compartment.

On the top, we have the main compartment that is accessed through two zippers with the top flap that can be opened on three sides. Under the top flap are two pockets, with zippers, in a black mesh material. I've been using these pockets to store business cards and other items I want to be contained, yet with access at the top.

Most of this large compartment is completely open for storage of clothes, snacks, books, equipment, and lots of other gear. I've been able to travel with just the Air Duffel for overnight trips with my clothes stored in this compartment. On the front side we find three shallow pockets sewn into the side with that awesome tough gold material lining the entire inside of this space. The shallow pockets are good for pens, keys, earbuds, and other gear.

On the back we find another double zipper pocket that offers much of what you find in a typical soft briefcase bag. This area zips down all three sides and into the bottom so that you can lay the back of this area flat on a TSA security belt while keeping your laptop safely inside the padded laptop area with Velcro closure. That's right, this bag is TSA checkpoint-friendly.

While a large laptop can fit in the padded back, there is another large compartment towards the front that is good for tablets, ebook readers, magazines, papers, and more. Behind this pocket are two large pockets and then three narrow pen/stylus pockets. You can also store other flat items between the padded pocket and the other pockets sewn into the gold material.

The extreme back of the Air Duffel has two more easy access pen pockets, one larger glasses pocket, and a flap for sliding the Air Duffel onto a rolling bag handle. There are four external D-rings so you can attach the comfortable padded shoulder strap and carry the bag how you like.

Price and options

The Air Duffel is available in black ballistic nylon for $399 or in tan waxed canvas for $429. The black nylon model has distress black and chocolate leather options for the front leather flap. I tested out the waxed canvas model with a chocolate leather front flap. The waxed canvas bag also had a leather bottom for increased durability.

In typical WaterField fashion, the YKK water-resistant zippers are attached well and even after many years of testing WaterField bags I have yet to see a failed zipper. Handles are leather lines and the strap has a large padded area for extra comfort.

The Air Duffel weighs in at 3.25 pounds, but it is such a large bag that it feels much lighter in hand. The padded laptop compartment can hold tech up to 14.25 inches by 9.75 inches.

Some people also like to add an Air Caddy bag and connect it to the Air Duffel with a carabiner. This small bag is designed to be pulled out on a plane and used during your flight without having to remove your larger bag to access your gear.

WaterField Air Duffel review: in pictures

Travel experiences

I'm 73 inches tall and prefer to sit in the exit row where I can actually straighten out my legs. Many times this is not an option and I have to put up with one to four inches of space between my knees and the seat in front of me. On some airlines when I have the aisle seat, I even have to put my small bag in the overhead since there are dividers squeezing the available leg room and I just cannot sit for hours on end scrunched up in a bundle. With the Air Duffel I have been able to keep the bag in front of me for every flight and on those couple of trips when I wasn't flying Alaska Airlines I was able to slide my feet under the Air Duffel to stay as comfortable as expected on an airplane.

Look under your airline seat and you will find one of the most restrictive space allowances at 8 inches wide by 13 inches tall by 17 inches long. This means the Air Duffel just meets this most restrictive space so it should be good to go for almost all domestic airlines. Thankfully, I was in first class for one leg of a flight and in Alaska premium for another so I had a chance to try out the Air Duffel in tight spaces and in those seats with plenty of room available.

For one to two-day trips in the past, I carried a small carry-on roller bag and a backpack, but over the past month I've been able to reduce that to just the Air Duffel. This has allowed me to skip checking bags or worrying about getting something into the overhead. It's pretty amazing how much you can pack into the Air Duffel and even with everything stuffed inside, key gear is easy to access without even having to slide the bag out from under the airline seat.

It is clear to me that serious travelers provided valuable feedback in designing this bag and it was a sheer pleasure to use a bag with no frustrations and clear travel optimization. Air travel is rarely a stress-free activity, but having a bag like the Air Duffel sure makes things easier. You no longer have to worry about boarding early to try to secure precious overhead space and can roll in like a champ with your gear all comfortably positioned under the seat in front of you.

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