Airport Scales Are Often Innacurate

Many airlines are charging travelers for having overweight bags, but a KNVX investigation found that 90% of the scales were malcalibrated. And when they accompanied an Arizona Department of Weights and Measures inspection of United Airlines scales, they found all but one to have errors.

Steve Meissner of the Arizona Department of Weights and Measures wrote us, “…baggage scales are often inaccurate. They take a 24-hour beating, with people heaving bags onto them, and jumping up, down and across them on a constant basis…we don’t believe the airlines are deliberately ripping people off. In fact they’re usually quick to make repairs when we show up. But we almost never fail to find scales that are out of tolerance when we visit the airport. The scales in the pickup area are usually the least accurate, probably because they get the most use.”

His best advice, “make sure it’s set at zero before you put anything on it. You’d be surprised how often that isn’t the case.”

Or, you could always pack lighter…

Airports-Baggage Policies:

US AIRWAYS: 51-70 lbs. $50, 71-100 lbs. $80
SOUTHWEST: 51-70 lbs. $25, 71-100 lbs. $50
UNITED: Over 50 lbs. $50
AMERICAN: 50-70 lbs. $25, 71-100 lbs. $50
DELTA: 50-70 lbs. $25, 71-100 lbs. $100

Tipping the Scales [KNVX]
(Photo: AmericanDigest)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Skeptic says:

    This is interesting. Scales used for commerce in California must be calibrated and approved for use by the department of Weights and Measures, but I’ve never seen a Weights and Measures seal on an airport luggage scale!

    Now that the airlines charge fees for overweight luggage based on those scales I wonder if they are opperating illegally?

  2. is malcalibrated even a word? its not being picked up in this spellcheck

  3. goodkitty says:

    If getting rid of a packet of peanuts to save $2 a flight is profitable, why not mess with the scales to nail a handful of people everyday for that extra $50 charge? So what is a flight now… reservation fee, security fee, window fee, luggage weight fee, food fee, entertainment fee… next will be an in-cabin oxygen fee. No wonder the tickets are only $39 round trip anywhere in the world!

  4. bnet41 says:

    I tend to believe the article. If you’ve ever worked around scales like that, you know how easily they can be knocked off from extreme use. What the above fails to mention is if the weights are off dramatically, and what direction are they usually off?

    Here’s the bigger thing though, it’s an passenger airline, not a cargo carrier. I never understood the way some people back. I went to China for over a week with a small suitcase, and I’m a big guy. It just baffles me the size of some people’s luggage. I think 50 pounds is a good limit.

  5. Skiffer says:

    @discounteggroll: No, it’s not

    I just hope that eventually some airlines get fined for their scales being off, since they’re now being so anal about actually charging for overweight baggage with fuel costs as their excuse.

    Anyone know – Does it actually cost $25-$50 more in jet fuel to fly an extra 20 lbs across the country? I’m pretty doubtful…

  6. philipbarrett says:

    I used to travel with a 48lb Pelican (now it’s 89lbs so all bets off), it would often come up as 50+lbs, I would ask the agent to move to another scale where invariably the weight read differently.

  7. steinwaytony says:

    What happened to the Consumerist style guide for headlines? —


    Kudos for being honest, though.

  8. CowPie says:

    It’s not just the fuel cost, the wear and tear on the employees who have to handle the bags that get bigger and bigger could be a reason. Also, the planes have a total weight limit and if you exceed it, it’s either bags or passengers left off.

    The best solution would be if the bag weighs over 50 lbs. then it doesn’t fly and then maybe people would take what they need, not what they think they may need.

  9. hollerhither says:

    Yes, there are union regs for lifting over a certain bag weight — just like for shippers, I think it used to be 70 pounds but for some has dropped to 50.

    Indeed, I hate traveling with a big bag but if you are going to a 5-day conference with 2 days of traveling and business dinners each night, you need a lot of clothes and shoes, not to mention any meeting notes and samples you can’t ship ahead.

  10. matthew_k says:

    There’s of course an easy way to solve this, you simply keep a large lead weight behind the counter. Throw it on the scale, and you can see if it’s accurate or not. The problem here is that it’s not in the airlines interest, and traveling with your own lead weight is inconvenient. Of course, this is the entire reason that we have departments of weights and measures.

  11. DearEditor says:

    @discounteggroll: It should be “miscalibrated” or, more likely, “uncalibrated”. “Malcalibrated” could be a word, structurally, but it doesn’t enjoy popular usage, and it’s meaning would imply deliberate, incorrect calibration.

    “Well here’s your problem, this scale’s set to Evil!”

  12. doodbugboodles says:

    If the airlines know that these scales get a lot of wear and tear which causes them to be inaccurate then wouldn’t the ethical thing to do is to have them recalibrated frequently?


  13. crichardson79 says:

    I thought southwest you could take on 2 bags that weighed 75lbs a piece. Where as all the other airlines is 3 bags that weigh up to 50lbs a piece. I traveled a few months ago and that what they said was their regulations (swa).

  14. magic8ball says:

    Although airlines will allow you to bring extra-heavy bags for a surcharge on domestic flights, their weight cutoff on overseas flights is lower. When my roommate moved to Switzerland, they told her they would not take luggage that weighed more than 70 lbs (which admittedly is a lot) regardless of how much she paid them.

  15. zekedms says:

    Wait, so the scale in the bag room that said I was 230 pounds was wrong? Crap! All this attempting to lose weight for nothing!

    Personally, I don’t see how people need nearly as much in one bag as they pack to get overweight fees. I packed everything I needed for a 3 day trip into a large duffel bag and my coat pockets when I went to Toronto. But I’d bet at least 20 percent of the bags I hurled working at the airport were 50+ pounds, and there’s absolutely no need for that. Either split it into seperate bags, or take less.

  16. kmccoy says:

    One of my biggest pet peeves is when people tell me how much luggage I *should* have. You really think you know enough about my life to tell me what stuff I should have? Perhaps I should go to your house and tell you what stuff you may keep and what stuff is just excessive. If an airline wants to set reasonable weight limits for luggage, I can appreciate that as a business decision. But the moral superiority by many people here and in real life about how much luggage you “need” for a certain trip is frustrating. I happen to live out of my luggage for ten months at a time. That gives a whole new perspective to how much luggage I “should” have.

    I guess it’s the typical Consumerist commenter way to tell people how they should live their lives, but it continues to be irritating. :)

  17. cabinaero says:

    FYI: For most United flights, the policy is two checked pieces with a 50lb per-piece limit. Premier Execs, 1K, UGS and StarGold can check three pieces each waying up to 70 pounds each.

    I don’t know how anyone could travel with over 100lb of regular luggage plus an oversized/overstuffed carry-on. Strollers aren’t counted as luggage (even though they’re gate checked); leisure items like golf clubs, skis, etc. are checked separately with a per item surcharge. Who needs to haul 100 pounds of personal effects around with them? Next week my fiancee is moving to the US and, between us, we’ll be well under 50 pounds checked.

    @KMCCOY: You’re an outlier and standard baggage allowances really don’t account for people like you. Those of us who fly a lot routinely see pax check over a hundred pounds of luggage for what is a week-long trip.

  18. wakela says:

    I fly internationally a lot (Continental), and I often push the limit. They usually let it slide if it’s just a pound or two over.

  19. acambras says:


    Every time my boyfriend flies to Mexico to visit his huge extended family, he takes gifts (unwrapped so he can get through TSA). It’s not unusual for him to pack his clothes in one bag, and put the gifts in a second checked bag. Last Christmas, one of my 2 checked bags was full of gifts too. So, even though we were going there for 10 days, it looked like we were going there for 6 months.

    Every time he packs for a trip, he tries to weigh everything on our little bathroom scale, so that items can be redistributed before we get a nasty surprise at the check-in counter. Having our bags declared overweight by a miscalibrated airline scale would certainly be a nasty surprise.

  20. sixsnowflakes says:

    @CABINAERO: 50 lbs between the 2 of you? BS!!!

  21. zekedms says:

    I’m amazed how few people have a clue on packing. Maybe because I do a fair amount of business travel I know something most don’t, but 50 pounds is damn significant amount for me to take anywhere.

  22. Trackback says:

    Upgraded: US Airways elite status for non-elitesDowngraded: Existing US Airways elite member satisfaction US Airways is letting those without status buy their way into the rank and file of the elite frequent flyer set, giving them access to the upgrade waiting list and a few bonus miles. Whoo.