Diabolical Designs: Retractable Luggage Handles

Click on the image to see detailed view of the failed zinc casting. Rolling luggage has to be one of the greatest engineering innovations of all time, so it’s a real pity that their telescoping handles are so frequently a dismal failure.

sierra.jpg Click on the image to see detailed view of the failed zinc casting. Rolling luggage has to be one of the greatest engineering innovations of all time, so it’s a real pity that their telescoping handles are so frequently a dismal failure.

On a recent trip (to India, natch) the cheaply-cast zinc parts in the handle assembly on my husband’s High Sierra brand bag (above) decided to give up the ghost.

First he had difficulty getting the handle to extend, which seemed like the worst luck in the world– until he couldn’t get the handle to retract again. You try checking a 22-inch bag with an 18-inch handle sticking out of it.

Talk about needing a chill pill! Why do so many handles perform so poorly? Given the high torsional and bending loads that are placed on the telescoping pieces during use, I’m confident that it’s not a trivial design problem.

In fact, broken handles account for 90% of warranty claims for wheeled luggage I myself have had particularly bad luck with the locking mechanism (the parts are often made of a cheap cast zinc or plastic) used to secure the handle in its extended position. These little puppies are typically spring-loaded bearings, hinges that are mechanically coupled to an actuator on the handle, or a combination of the two.

In any case, they are designed to securely engage (or at least that’s how they are supposed to work in theory), thus keeping the telescoping pieces from wobbling about when extended or extending too far. The thing is that unless the handle assembly fails, you don’t normally see all the handle’s inner workings–which leads me to conclude that what is out of sight on a bag is out of mind.

Designers apparently have traded-off a little extra effort (and cost) in this area in lieu of fancy hardware and ballistic-proof nylon designed to survive in a landfill for millions of years.

To wit, the cheap cast zinc parts that fractured and failed on the Sierra bag above showed no signs of fatigue. Conclusion: bad castings. The cost of the bag doesn’t seem to make a difference. I’ve had both cheap bags and expensive bags fail on me — see below for a gallery of the most egregious offenders. Send me your photos and I’ll add them to my Luggage Hall of Shame. At this point simply like to find a bag that holds up for more than 50 trips. Got any ideas?


Fig 1 The locking pins on this Dakota bag broke, leaving me with an infinitely-extendible handle.





ciao.jpg Click on the image to view details. Fig 2 A failed locking pin had me saying bye-bye to this Ciao! Signature brand bag. tumi.jpg Fig 3 Tumi had a clever idea to mount the handle grip on a bevel so it could rotate — too bad it failed on its very first trip!. Later, aTumi engineer (off-the-record) pointed the finger at the company that Tumi had outsourced the assembly to.


Click on the image to view detail. Fig 4 Various attempts to jury-rig a favorite bag with home-made locking devices after the original parts failed should be a familiar sight to engineers everywhere.



  1. Hi Jim Gavin did you have any luck, we have the same problem. i.e. the handle has been smashed, they must be replaceable as they are held on by a screw each side, but where do you get them?Does anybody know?

  2. Does anyone know where to get a replacement retractable luggage handle mechanism? I have searched the web and am not having too much luck. I love my bag and would hate to replace it. Let me know…. Thanks.

  3. Yup, you got it in one – it was a cast zinc part. Find out more about the Zamac alloy (zinc, aluminium, magnesium and copper) Dave refers to in this Wikipedia stub article (English): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zamac

  4. Is the failed part zinc? It looks like it may be Zamac / Mazac, aka ‘monkey metal’?

  5. Get a bit of string, tie it to the retracted retractable handle and pull it along.
    The string also has its own retractable feature — untie it and shove it in the suitcase.

  6. The solution that works for me is to ignore all other types and makes of cases and choose only “Samsonite hard luggage”
    25 years of travel on a weekly basis and often a different country every day has proven to me that these are the only cases that can stand up to the hard work.
    Used on a more normal basis, they will last a lifetime, are water tight; important if you have ever seen a forlorn bag lying on the tarmac in Milan in the rain? I have and it lay there for more than an hour, while the luggage truck tugs drove around it.
    Sure the Samsonite will eventually fail, my first one lasted more than a thousand trips, but the current one has only done around 250 and Air France managed to rip the extending handle completely off in Rome week before last, leaving the fixing screws and moulded bosses still intact on teh case.
    The largest Samsonite I had carried my holiday luggage and a watercooeld exhaust manifold and heat exchanger for a marine diesel engine to Alicante without damage. Although it weighed in at 77Kg, it was in the good old days befer 911 and no extra baggage charge was levied.
    Avoid any thing that projects from the bag [castors, weheels, handles etc.] Any wheels must be shrouded and partialy enclosed.

  7. Couple of years back I bought a seriously expensive ‘dive bag’ to carry all my scuba gear. The manufacturers made great claims about being so innovative, custom designed for scuba kit, super strong etc,etc. Only trouble was they fitted the rollers with mild steel axles and fixed it all together with cheap and nasty plated steel rivets. Try mixing that with sea water -it lasted about 1 month longer than the guarantee before it disintegrated. Probably never occurred to them a dive bag would get wet…

  8. My view of roll-ons like this?
    Buy the cheapest you can (no more that $20) and treat it as disposable when it breaks, especially if you have to check the luggage into aircraft holds.
    Alas, this is not environmentally friendly.
    Expensive roll-ons can still get trashed in the hold, airlines often won’t pay up, and, as this blog shows, the metal parts of expensive roll-ons are no better made than cheap ones.
    When I was travelling weekly, I used to get through 3-4 rollers a year (at least 50% unreclaimable airline hold damage), but, at $20 per page I was still ahead of the game in time and money. Some bags were repurposed to storage use at home (in the attic), some tossed. Occaisionally I could mash-up two damaged bags into a working one with pop-rivets or cheap bolts & epoxy (spending no more than 1 hour tops in the repair)

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