5 On Your Side

Pack light and use bathroom scale to avoid airline baggage fees

Posted November 20, 2012 5:53 p.m. EST
Updated November 20, 2012 9:12 p.m. EST

— We've all been there: swapping, rearranging and moving stuff around to avoid paying overweight baggage fees at the airport. 

Freddie Ayesh didn't check his bags before catching a flight to Jordan, and wound paying the price.

"One time (it was) $70, the second time was $150," he said.

Jamie Burke checks her baggage weights on the bathroom scale. 

"I got on it, weighed myself – I'm not going to tell you what that said – but then I picked up my luggage, stood on (the scale) and we did the math," she said. "We figured out it's about 46 pounds, so I think I have about 4 pounds of wiggle room."

Not necessarily, said Jerry Butler, with the Standards Division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, who said airport scales can't always be trusted.

"They will get off because people are dropping 50-pound bags on that thing hundreds and hundreds of times a day," Butler said.

He said airlines at Raleigh-Durham International Airport check their scales every three months, and the Standards Division comes in once a year for an inspection. 

During the last inspection in March, Butler's team check almost 100 scales. Thirteen failed inspection – one was 2 whole pounds off. The previous year, Butler said, ten scales had problems.

The airport keeps a maintenance worker on standby during the checks

"If we find anything at all wrong, even if it's only minor, they correct it while we're here," Butler said.

With overweight baggage fees topping out around $200, a scale's accuracy could mean the difference between a hassle-free flight and a costly mess-up. 

Butler said Burke has the right idea by weighing her luggage at home. He said anyone who believes their bag is underweight should ask to use a second scale if the bag comes up over. 

"Just ask them. There are two scales side by side. If you're over 50 pounds on that scale, ask them, 'Do you mind checking on another scale?'" he said. "It's your right to know because it's big money. It's big money."

And while you might breeze through RDU without a problem, scales at other airports could come up with a different weight. Butler recommends checking that the scale says "zero" before placing bags on it.

The National Institure of Standard and Technology said there's no set guideline for how often airports should inspect scales. The Oakland and Pittsburgh airports, which have about the same passenger traffic as RDU, also check scales once a year.

The Austin airport, however, checks only once every 4 years.