Trav­el­ers weigh in on faulty air­port bag­gage scales.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­liott.org. CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

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 some­times 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.

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 (in­ven­thelp­store.com; $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 (raden.com, $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.

“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.

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.

“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.”

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