Gate-check your luggage and avoid baggage fees

by Charlie Leocha on January 28, 2010


Baggage bins above airline seats are getting more and more crowded. As baggage fees go up, passengers are carrying more on board aircraft. But more and more travelers are starting to gate-check luggage as well. It seems to be a loophole in the airline baggage check fee system.

Just this month, Continental, Delta, United and American all began charging coach passengers on domestic flights $25 for a first checked bag and $35 for the second, an increase of about $5 over previous fees. USAirways raised their fee in December. (There are some bargains for online payments.)

Is it too much of a coincidence that these increases came for the most part after the Christmas bombing attempt and security for carry-on bags became more of a hassle?

I fly regularly between Boston and Washington DC. Almost every aircraft I have been on in the past year has been a smaller regional aircraft. Gate-checking is the norm for anything larger than a briefcase or thin computer bag. There simply is no room on the small plane for more, especially when traveling on American Airlines regional jets.

However, on a couple of recent trips across the country I noticed that more and more bags seem be finding their way into gate-check collections of strollers and car seats at the end of the Jetway.

It seems that many business travelers and some leisure travelers are wising up to the fact that airlines only charge luggage fees when passengers check their baggage prior to boarding the flight. If passengers can get to the gate with luggage too large to slip into overhead storage or under the seat, or if there is just no more room on board for more carry-on bags, the attendants simply slap a tag on the bag and gate-check it.

I’m not sure how all of this will play out. I have seen airline staff examining bags in the security line and telling passengers that the bag should be checked rather than carried on. However, when most security lines handle many different airline, it is difficult for airlines to identify their passengers. I have also seen gate personnel offering to check bags that have come through security for free, just to eliminate the hassles of trying to squeeze them on board crowded flights.

Some airlines have tried to put templates on the x-ray machines at security lines, only to have to remove them. Passengers are now wearing vests and jackets with large pockets that act as wearable luggage — certainly stretching the definition of luggage and baggage.

All of these machinations are the result of baggage fees and all were predicted as fees went into effect. Now some legacy carriers are claiming that they will start to charge baggage fees for any luggage that does not fit into the luggage template at the gate.

My prediction: The boarding process will get worse before it gets better because airlines will start stationing a baggage agent at the gate complete with a credit card machine, just like they are using for on-board purchases.

Airline are grubbing for money and they are irritating their passengers. It is not a good combination.

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  • Matthew in NYC

    I like the idea of enforcing the carryon limits, but I just wish that airlines (or maybe IATA) could come up with standard dimensions. The overhead bins seem to accommodate a 21x14x10 roll-aboard wheels in first, however the airlines only specify the maximum linear inches (e.g. 45). I’ve seen plenty of people with bags that are 24x11x10 that satisfy the linear rule but have to be laid lengthwise in the overhead bin, effectively taking the space of two bags. If you have a crowded plane, all of that space is precious. If they’re going to do this though, they also need to specify the maximum dimensions of a personal item.

    The best place to enforce luggage size limits is at check in. I’ve been at airline check in counters where passengers have been asked to show and weight their carryon bags. Some airlines even tag carryons.

  • Puzzled

    Charlie, I’m afraid that if too many travelers try this the airlines will simply start charging for carry-on luggage as well as checked luggage. What’s your take on that scenario?

  • Vacationagent

    The New York Times online edition has an article about passengers gaming the system to avoid checked luggage fees that is scheduled to be published in this Sunday’s Travel Section.

  • MeanMeosh

    On a recent flight from ORD to DEL on AA, a gate agent was warning everybody in the waiting area that the flight was full, and simultaneously threatening to slap the checked bag fee on any bag that had to be gate checked. I don’t know if this threat was actually followed through, but still, I wouldn’t count on a free ride if you’re hoping to gate check.

  • j

    My prediction: The boarding process will get worse.

  • Beth

    I flew out of Buffalo on Delta/NWA about 6 months ago, and observed a gate agent approach passengers to tell them they would have to gate check a bag, and that they would have to use a credit card to pay the fee.

  • rmtc

    Charlie,

    Typically, gate-checked bags are returned to the passenger plane-side (or on the jetway), whereas checked bags go through the plumbing of the airport and wind up on the carousel. (At least, this is true for the RJs and prop planes.)

    For those who are forced to check their bags planeside because of space (on larger planes), are the bags returned planeside (as strollers are) or at the carousel? A justification for the charge may be all of the handling necessary to get the bag to the carousel (and from the ticket counter during departure). But if the customer has to drag his own bag through the concourses, it seems silly to charge just for space in the belly of the plane.

    Personally, I fly lots of RJs and gate-check my bags because I don’t trust the airlines to handle my bags through the plumbing of the airport. I like seeing my bag go on and off the plane. It also allows me to quickly change flights when the one I am scheduled for runs afoul of its original schedule. For this flexibility and security, I have to lug my garment bag wherever I go.

  • Scott

    Gate-checked bags are NOT returned to the customer planeside. This is reserved for strollers only.

    As you acknowledge, you are thinking of cabin bags on RJs which are stored underneath because they are too large for the cabin.

  • The Good Doctor

    I’ve seen gate agents at DCA slapping passengers with the baggage fee if they have to send a bag down the chute because the overhead bins are full. If a flight attendant does it however, they probably won’t hit you with the fee because processing your credit card just creates more work for them. Gate agents, on the other hand, have plenty of time to make your trip miserable.

  • http://www.travelingwithmj.com Mary Jo

    Gate checked bags go to baggage claim, they are merely checked at the gate. If the bag is over-sized, and doesn’t fit in an overhead, the passenger will likely be assessed a bag fee. If the bag would have fit, but the overheads are full, some airlines are not charging a fee. Exceptions are often made for premium level mileage plan members, and, of course, sometimes a last minute item will just be dealt with rather than applying the official process.

    Claim at gate items, like strollers, first class over-sized items, etc. are a different breed. Commuter airlines, with smaller planes, often have different policies and regulations about carry ons that do major airlines.

  • JP

    I use a stroller to accommodate all my carry-on + larger luggage. No baby, just luggage. Works like a charm. Take that, airlines!

  • Robert Beiter, Jr.

    What would happen if airlines allowed one free checked bag and then charged more for each additional bag? There would be far fewer carry-on bags and the could make up some of the lost revenue by charging something like $30 or $40 for the second bag.

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