How to tip the airline scales in your favor

Airport luggage scales lie.

It’s not an uncommon allegation. And sometimes, it’s actually true. Ticket counter weights in Phoenix, Raleigh, N.C., and Seattle have been found to be inaccurate — errors that often enrich the airline.

Baggage fees are big business. In the first three quarters of 2016, carriers collected $3.1 billion in luggage fees, an increase of roughly $300 million from the previous year. Luggage scales are generally regulated at the state level and are subject to inspections quarterly or yearly, depending on their location.

The question isn’t whether airport scales are a little off , but what to do when you’re at the airport and a ticket agent announces that your bag is too heavy.

Your airline immediately sees dollar signs. For example, American Airlines charges just $25 for a checked bag on a domestic flight, but the fee quadruples if your bag weighs more than 50 pounds and doubles again to $200 if it’s over 70 pounds. Do the airline’s costs actually multiply by that much when your bag weighs an extra pound? That’s debatable.

Passengers, on the other hand, see red. They reflexively claim that the airline has its thumb on the scale . But that’s just the start of a peculiar airport game that’s winnable if you know how to play it.

“Delta and American ask you to remove enough to get it under the allotted amount,” says Rich Ruddie, who runs an online consulting firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “And, of course, Southwest lets your bags fly free.”

Other airlines, though, take a hard line on overweight bags. On some discount carriers, ticket agents have given Ruddie an ultimatum when his bag tipped the scale at 51 pounds: Either pay their $55 overweight luggage fee or abandon the bag. “They milk you for every penny,” he says.

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There’s a way to avoid confrontations, of course. Weigh your bag before you leave. You can either buy a stand-alone digital luggage scale such as the Weigh It ($19.95), which attaches to your handle and can be used for a variety of objects, not just luggage. You also can buy luggage with an integrated scale, such as Raden’s A22 ($295), which will tell you your bag is overweight before your airline does.

Or you can come prepared to offload.

“I always have an empty, lightweight tote in a side pocket,” says Robert Kraus, who works for a political organization in Alexandria, Va. “Just in case.” He also offers some more un­or­tho­dox advice: “I always leave a little part of the bag, usually the wheel end facing me, on the edge of the scale,” he says. In the same vein, some travelers say that they are cut more slack when they check in curbside. The agents there, who often work for tips, are more likely to look the other way if you have a heavy bag.

Elisabeth Herbert, a counter agent for Alaska Airlines in Spokane, Wash., says arguing with an employee is often an act of futility. “I’ve had people argue with me saying our scales must be off,” she says. “I’ve noticed most of the time the bags are only overweight by two to three pounds.” She suggests that travelers leave themselves some wiggle room to allow for small discrepancies.

One of the most egregious luggage-fee cases that has crossed my desk was Janet Mosher’s. When she flew from Salzburg, Austria, to Frankfurt, Germany, on Austrian Airlines, a ticket agent tagged her checked bag and sent it along the conveyor belt. But her carry-on bag was deemed overweight.

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“I could easily have met Austrian’s weight requirements by placing items from my carry-on in my checked bag, which was well below the airline’s weight limit,” recalls Mosher, a retired teacher from Alexandria, Va.

The agent offered her three choices: remove and discard items from her bag to reduce the weight, pay a 75 euro overweight luggage charge or transfer items from her overweight carry-on to another passenger’s bag, which was still on the belt and about to be checked.

“These ‘gotcha’ fees are capitalism at its worst,” she said.

I agree. It’s one thing for an airline to simply cover the cost of transporting your excess poundage, but the fee structure makes charging for overweight baggage look like the money grab that it is. Shouldn’t airlines be making money the old-fashioned way, by selling tickets? I contacted Austrian Airlines on her behalf and it refunded the 75 euros as a goodwill gesture.

And if all else fails?

“I turn up the charm and appeal to the agent’s spirit of generosity,” says Nick Bratton, who works for a nonprofit organization in Anchorage. It’s a strategy that’s particularly effective when you’re a pound or less overweight and you can find a compelling reason for the agent to look the other way — it’s a return flight or you’ve packed a gift for an elderly relative.

“This approach has been successful for me more often than not,” Bratton says. “But I don’t recommend it as much as planning ahead.”

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Ward Chartier

    Do the ticket counter scales in Phoenix, Raleigh, N.C., and Seattle have weights and measures department inspection stickers on them? If so, then a formal complaint to the weights and measures departments in those places is the right thing to do. Class action lawsuits might also be in order.

    In the recent past I often used San Francisco International Airport. The luggage scales there do have weights and measures inspection stickers.

  • Bruce Burger

    The statement that “of course, Southwest lets your bags fly free” is wrong in the context of this article — they charge $75 for bags over 50 pounds.

    And the article fails to mention the simplest thing you can do if you suspect the scale is wrong: ask to use another scale.

  • BubbaJoe123

    “Shouldn’t airlines be making money the old-fashioned way, by selling tickets?”

    So, the airline should be charging me more rather than charging the people with a lot of baggage more?

  • sirwired

    It’s important to know that airlines very rarely actually own the scales in question. The airport itself usually owns the ticket counters, so they can shift counter-space amongst various airlines. I don’t doubt that scales are often bumped out of adjustment, but I do not believe this is any sort of nefarious conspiracy to collect luggage fees.

    OTOH, it would behoove airlines to have a “spare” scale off to the side that receives daily checks for accuracy vs a standard weight; that would quickly resolve any disputes. (Or even a “Lady Justice”-style balance, with a big ‘ol “50lb” sitting on one pan, and the other pan ready to receive your bag.)

  • MarkKelling

    Airlines have always charged for overweight, oversized, and other baggage that was not within their stated limits. The amount they charge may have gone up, but this is nothing new.

    I remember my uncle leaving after a visit back in the 60s complaining he was being charged an extra $10 because his bag was 10 pounds over. He was able to buy a new suitcase at the airport for less than $5 and split his stuff into the two bags and then check them both for no charge. I remember because to me at that time as a small child, $10 was a huge amount of money.

  • Jeff W.

    The fee structure could be considered a money grab, but it is also there to encourage proper behavior. Yes, the ticket agent could turn a blind eye to 51 or 52 lbs. But if the agent does it for one and not everyone, then trouble could be had. Sad to say this, but if the rule is 50 lbs, the it is easier to enforce the rule for everyone rather than deal with exceptions.

    Just remember that there are people who are lifting these bags as it makes it journey from the ticket counter to the plane to your final destination. Heavy bags have a greater chance to cause injury. The airlines want to protect their workers and this is one way to do so. A lighter bag makes for a healthier baggage handler.

  • jmj

    For example, American Airlines charges just $25 for a checked bag on a domestic flight, but the fee quadruples if your bag weighs more than 50 pounds and doubles again to $200 if it’s over 70 pounds. Do the airline’s costs actually multiply by that much when your bag weighs an extra pound? That’s debatable.

    Although I have no data/internet article link to back me up, I suspect the steep jumps in price aren’t motivated by profit (although I’m sure it helps), but are there to dissuade passengers from over-packing.

  • sirwired

    I’m pretty sure that bags over a certain weight must be handled by multiple people, and over THAT larger weight, can no longer transit the normal conveyor system.

    I have no idea when a bag shifts from being just a generic bag for weight/balance, and becomes cargo that the dispatcher running the numbers has to specifically account for.

  • greg watson

    I like one consumers comments on a similar article. I believe the context was to weigh the customer & the bag. If the total weight was over the acceptable limit, an extra charge would be reasonable. In my case, my weight is 175 lbs & my bag is ~ 50 lbs, which puts me at a total of ~225 lbs. How fair is it if a person weighing over 250 lbs for example, (& will probably encroach on someone else’s seat space ) can be allowed the same luggage weight. Until that issue is dealt with, really, what is deal with just luggage weight. I know what some reactions will be, but I once weighed 246 lbs & I mean no disrespect to heavy / overweight people. Just food for thought for the luggage weights & overcharges by the airlines.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Based on previous Chris columns, I’ve found that my hotels will almost always have scales in the bellhop/luggage porter area, and let me weigh them for free. Then I can adjust the weights between bags as necessary to get to ~40-45 lbs, which avoids the problem.

  • SierraRose 49
  • michael anthony

    Thats pure and simple discrimination. Weight is a combination of lifestyle sbd genetics. Plus, many drugs that sustain life lead to large weight increases.

    Carriers use averages. They figure they’ll have 200 people at an average weight of x lbs. Your 175lbs balances out with say the teen who weighs 125. The only time pax and luggage weight are vital are flying certain small commuter jets.

  • sirwired

    Bags over a certain weight require special handling, no matter if they were checked by an infant or a linebacker.

  • Hanope

    I’ve not heard of weighing carry-ons before. I always presumed they weighed the luggage for two reasons. 1 – to distribute in the airplane and know how much fuel to add and 2 – so employees know whether the bags they have to lift are over or less than 50 pounds. I presumed carry-ons didn’t get weighed before the employees didn’t have to lift them, the passengers did, and the crew makes a general presumption of weight inside the plane cabins.

  • joycexyz

    I’ve never heard of weighing carry-ons either; I thought it was the dimensions that counted. Can someone enlighten us?

  • Attention All Passengers

    Why any agent would not suggest an option of taking out the “offending” overage of 1-3 lbs is beyond me. A perfect example of not using common sense. 99.9% of travelers will gladly take out 1-2 lbs. I don’t even do that…….I’ve always let people go for the 1-2 lbs over. What a twisted society we live in when people turn a blind eye to the worst of corruption and criminality but can’t help someone else adjust or remove 1-2 lbs from their bag to avoid a fee.

  • Jeff W.

    I have only experienced the weighing on carry-ons for smaller planes where the carry-on is really gate-checked and placed down below.

    Or a couple of times I flew in a helicopter, where the total weight did matter. Didn’t have luggage, but someone had a backpack and that was weighed with the passenger.

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