Are Airline Scales Systematically Cheating Passengers With Overweight Baggage Fees?

Although airlines are regulated exclusively by federal law under the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, they aren’t exempt from all state laws — US Airways has been fined for state liquor law violations in the past, and occasionally there are state weights and measures investigations that find airline luggage scales to measure improperly, exposing carriers to state fines.

Arizona found several inaccurate luggage scales in Phoenix and Tucson. (HT: mapsmith on Milepoint)

These scales get a ton of abuse. No doubt they aren’t all consistently well-maintained and adjusted. I’m quite sure the phenomenon isn’t limited to Arizona.

I’m actually rather surprised there hasn’t been an airline whistleblower working with a plaintiff’s attorney, as given the money involved in checked baggage fees and overweight baggage fees to the extent that scales are systematically off due to negligence in maintenance there ought to be a fairly compelling (to a jury angry at baggage fees!) class action suit in here somewhere.

Though an individual complaint may not get much sympathy from an airline, and arguing or demanding to see certification or maintenance logs at the airport at time of check-in if an agent is trying to charge you for an overweight bag may be more frustrating than productive, I do think asking questions about the precision of a scale is reasonable if one is being charged for a slightly overweight bag.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Stop at Costco on the way to the airport and get a 42-pound bag of cat litter to test the thing.

  2. I used to be an auditor for an airline, and we checked this regularly for accuracy because of our weight and balance program. I can only think of one occurance when the scales were inaccurate, and it was in the passengers favor. Each station also had a 50 pound weight behind the counter to periodically check as well. This could be a problem perhaps in hubs, but line stations I don’t think are a problem.

  3. They might be off but a bit but generally I get some slack cut if I am a couple of pounds over the limit (I fly with tools). What pisses me off is when I have 2 bags and one is 48 pounds and the other is 52 pounds and they make me repack until they are both 50. Give me a break!

  4. I’ve run into this problem at TUS and BUR.

    The last time I ran into an inaccurate scale, it was at the WN counter at BUR. My bag, which I had weighed at home to be 48 pounds (on a very accurate digital travel scale), weighed in at 51.5 pounds. Despite my A-list status, the agent insisted that I remove 1.5 pounds or I would be charged an overweight fee. I protested to no avail. Finally, I opened my bag and removed a small belt (which weighs 7.1 ounces, according to my postal scale). After removing this belt, my bag weighed in at 49.5 pounds. The agent was unimpressed, and certainly didn’t show me any LOVE.

    If the airline’s scale weighed the bag in at 4 pounds over my scale (which is very accurate, and has always been exactly on point with every other airline scale), and then fluctuated by 2 pounds with the removal of an item which weighs less than 1/2 pound, then the scale had to be inaccurate. I wonder how many other people got screwed by this inaccurate scale?

    The SCOTUS Morales decision is pretty wide-reaching as to the scope of the ADA. While there have been some very limited exceptions to the federal pre-emption authority of the ADA, I suspect that even weights and measures issues could arguably fall under the ADA’s broad reach. As an attorney, I’ve been involved in about a dozen cases involving the Airline Deregulation Act, and I can tell you that it is about as wide-reaching as any federal legislation I’ve come across.

  5. One of my rolling travel-duffels is large, and weighs 13 pounds EMPTY. If I were to fill it full, it would weigh 70 or 80 lbs. So to stay under the 50-limit, I put only my extreme-lightweight things in it (polar fleece jacket, pillow, i.e. anything that is bulky yet light). Invariably, I still end up at ~52 lbs at the airport. I find myself having to take 1-to-3 lbs out of it every single time. It’s SOOO frustrating trying to remove a couple lbs to put into my other bag, which is usually 30-or-so, while everyone in line behind me is staring. A 52-lb bag & a 30-lb bag SHOULD BE ALLOWED! The only thing I can guess is that airlines don’t want their employees lifting more than 50.

  6. It’s a federal offense, not merely a state offense, to use an inaccurate scale when you are charging people money. This is not peachfront speculating. My husband has worked for many years in weights and measurements, including testimony in federal cases when requested by the FBI. People who encounter an inaccurate scale at any business need to report it. Because it’s a crime and a serious one.

  7. Before I had airline elite status, I used to lean my bag against the side of the scale wall.
    Most agents didn’t catch this, as I was charged for the Force in the Y direction, but not in the X direction!

  8. If a ticket agent states a bag is over the limit, you as a customer have the right to ask that the bag be weighted on another scale to verify the weight. You can also ask the agent to show you the City’s Weight and Measure sticker. If there is none they can be fined.

    Rhode Island law:

    Every person who shall sell coal or other merchandise without its being first weighed by a weigher provided for in § 47-7-1, when the weighing shall be demanded by the purchaser, and procuring a certificate of the weight for the purchaser, shall be fined twenty dollars ($20.00) for each offense.

    Every person who shall keep hay scales or platform balances for public use shall cause the hay scales or platform balances to be tried and sealed at least once in six (6) months by a sworn sealer of weights and measures.

  9. The last thing we need is another class action lawsuit where the only people who benefit are the plaintiff’s attorneys. As a shareholder in many companies I’ve seen it happen way too often.

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