Consumerist reader Andrew was recently boarding a U.S. Airways flight out of Newark when he noticed that airline staffers were forcing people to gate-check their bags even though fewer than 1/3 of the passengers had actually gotten on the plane.
Not one to cause a ruckus, when Andrew was asked to hand over his bag to be placed in the cargo hold, he did so without complaint.
But when he got onto the Airbus A321, Andrew suddenly had to wonder why in the world he’d been forced to check his bag:
I noticed every discernible conversation was discussing how the overheads were nowhere near full, and yet people had to give up their bags. As it happened, the overhead above me, and the one across from me were COMPLETELY EMPTY. Scanning other overheads on the plane made me realize that the overheads were at best half full, except in the very front of the plane [See the pic above]… The EWR crew had made dozens of people gate check a bag when there was plenty of space on the aircraft, and it had not gone unnoticed by the passengers.
Curious why passengers were being compelled to check bags when there was ample space in the overhead bins, Andrew sent off an e-mail to the CEO of U.S. Airways.
While the CEO didn’t write back to Andrew directly, the e-mail did result in a response from U.S. Airways’ customer service:
I regret your displeasure with out forced bag check policy. Normally, passengers are allowed one carry on bag with a personal item. Our records indicate your flight 1809 operated out of Newark with 150 passengers onboard. When the flight is expected to be full [Ed. Note: the Airbus A321 holds 167 seats in Coach class alone], the gate agents and flight attendants must make estimates of the overhead space available. Our In-Flight attendants followed our policy and guidelines when they determined that the capacity in the overhead compartments had been met on your flight. There is no charge when an allowed carry on item has to be stowed below the plane when the capacity of the overhead bins had been met. However I apologize if you feel this procedure was misleading and will ensure your comments have been documented for future training purposes.
The airline’s response does not really explain why staffers would force people to check their bags when the overhead bins are quite obviously not full and the plane is not actually flying at full capacity.
Andrew theorizes in a note to Consumerist:
Simple: Increased competition in on-time performance in the last few months. Since they are judged on when the plane leaves, and not how many people have to part with their bag, they have every reason to claim the bins are full even when they are empty. Further, perhaps the inconvenience will cause people in the future to check their bag and pay the $35.
The biggest problem we see with forcing passengers to gate-check bags is that many travelers pack precious, breakable and expensive items in their carry-ons out of fear that they will be damaged or go missing if the bags are tossed into the cargo hold.