American Airlines Passenger Threatened With Arrest: No Room For Mom’s Ashes In The Overhead Bin

One of the most frustrating moments in travel is when you go to board a flight with your carry on bag, perfectly within the allowable size, and you’re told that there’s no more room on the plane. You’re going to have to check it. So you give up your bag.

It has important things in it that you don’t want lost, and now you’re going to have to wait for it at baggage claim. You board the flight and see there’s plenty of overhead bin space. The inconvenience turned out to be pointless. That’s one of the more frequent complaints about airlines that I see day in and day out in social media.

The announcement that overhead bins were full, and everyone still remaining to board would have to gate check their carry on bags, came at the worst possible moment for one American Airlines passenger. She was carrying her mother’s ashes.

When she explained that to the gate agent, she says she was told to “take them out of the bag and hold them.” She doesn’t share whether her own reaction to this was intemperate, but says that she was “yelled at” and threated with arrest.

The passenger decided to film how this was unfolding. The gate agent declared that “for security purposes” passengers aren’t allowed to film at the gate. That’s not accurate. The passenger was told that if they continued to film they would not be permitted to fly. A police officer approached, got between the passenger and gate agent, and ordered the woman to put down her phone. Law enforcement instructing her not to film, too, seems improper.

I’d bet that the passenger wasn’t calm and reasonable throughout the interaction. She was… carrying her mother’s ashes.

American’s corporate motto is “caring for passengers on life’s journey.” They didn’t seem to care about this passenger on her mother’s last journey.

Airlines hate gate checking bags at the last moment because that can lead to delays of a few extra minutes. Those delays can mean missed connections, and they can add up throughout the day too. So they put a lot of pressure on gate agents to start forcing passengers to check their bags early – avoiding a situation where people spend time looking for bin space, find there isn’t any, and then return to the front of the aircraft to check their bags.

It’s this fear of having to check bags at the last moment – and indeed, being criticized for it by management – that leads gate agents to require passengers to check bags even when there’s still plenty of bin space on the aircraft. When a United Airlines gate agent told me I had to check my bag last year I just ignored her, went on board with my bag, and found plenty of space. Many of you told me I was wrong for doing so.

If you have important items you’re traveling with, it’s important to be in the gate area when your flight begins boarding, and to get on board as soon as possible. At the very least, it’s important not to board among the last passengers on the plane. That’s because even with airlines installing bigger overhead bins, on every U.S. airline other than Southwest your compatriots are doing their best Noah’s Ark impression carrying on two of every item they own in order to avoid checked bag fees.

Southwest offers two free checked bags per passenger, so passengers check more of their belongings, and there’s usually less of a rush for bin space – and fewer passengers being told that their items have to be checked right as they’re about to board the plane.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Well we have heard one side of the story. . . and I am sure this person was a perfect, patient angel. I never beleive social media post.

  2. Probably more to the story and the truth lies in the middle. If there is no room for more bags there is No Room. Customer should have spoken with Gate Agents upon arrival at gate and explained situation of carrying Personal Remains and not wanted to be separated for any reason and more than likely she would have been accommodated. Bad situation overall.

  3. When travelling with something so important, why cheap out? Pay a little extra and get the higher boarding zone so overhead space is not an issue.

  4. This gives me the opportunity to ask this question. Flying over the holidays I had to gate checked my bag (Alaska Airlines). Gate checked bags were left in the passengers’ possession, and we were told to take them down the boarding ramp to the aircraft and leave them in the designated area. My question is: if I had removed the strip of paper wrapped around the handles and carried my bag onboard, do the airlines track if the bag is actually loaded into the belly of the plane? If so, are there serious consequences for trying to carry the bag onboard?

  5. JSM — I have removed the strip in that situation and kept the bag, and no one noticed. But sometimes they tag the bag with a numbered claim check, even if they leave the bag with you, and that could cause problems if they discover it hasn’t been loaded onto the plane.

  6. “offering to check my carry ons except 1 containing my mothers ashes”
    Exactly how many carry ons did this lady have? It would appear to be more than the 1 allowed

  7. My success rate in finding space if I am able to get a bag aboard despite them trying to gate check it is 100%. They cry wolf 100% of the time.

    When I have been unable to avoid gate check, I have a plastic bag inside my bag which allows rapid removal. When they gate check, they never ban carrying a plastic bag because it can fit under the seat.

  8. First where is the Supervisor to diffuse the situation? Second is there not any guidelines on AA website to advise Customers of rules for carrying Human Remains when traveling? I am sure the Customer was most likely distraught at the thought of sending the bag containing the remains down to the belly of the plain to be secured and handled by Ramp Agents. I would also like to see where it is written that Customers are not allowed to film in the Gate Area. People do that all the time and post on Social Media. Seems the Agent did not want proof she was in error.

  9. @American … How do we actually know the bins were full ? If they were full , then that is a good reason for only one small carry-on per customer . Regarding mobile phones , I’m with the gate agent on that one ; people can be impolite with their phones . I am disabled , and I have been impolitely mocked with those phones .

  10. “With the borders wide open…”
    She lost me right there!
    That shows me she’s an entitled, loud, abusive Maga nut…..

  11. Apparently this woman was not inclined to solve a problem, she was inclined to fight. She had was allowed a personal item to board and a larger carryon which they required her to gate check. Easy enough to step aside and repack her remains into the personal item, or just do as the gate agent said and hand carry the remains. Sometimes they want me to gate check my personal item, which is a wheeled duffle which will fit under the seat, simply because it has wheels, I think. I just take the tag off like Gary. I will comply with valet checking my 21″ carryon if it will be retrieved on the jet bridge, but I will dodge gate checking it through to baggage claim if I can.

  12. Buy a higher status?


    I fly on FC on domestic flights and AA has pulled this full bin crap on me more than once.

    And both times, we hadn’t even BOARDED the flight so how could they determine my bin would be full?

    Tired of their game so I now refuse to fly their regional aircraft. And Charlotte is the VERY worst for pulling this stunt.

  13. This touches me as my dad hand carried my mother’s ashes from Tucson to her family plot in Iowa. I don’t recall if he flew through St. Louis or Kansas City, which were TWA hubs at the time, or some closer but smaller airport. I do recall that he carried them in a small hand bag.
    Dad was a constant traveler and conversant with the rules, but American should have found a work around for this bereaved traveler even if it was her first flight.

  14. Pulling your phone out to start recording is a dick move and just asking for things to escalate. Sure it might be allowed. But how would any of us feel if it was done to us during a difficult moment whether personal or at work?

  15. AA’s Rules: “When you travel with cremated remains, they’ll be treated as your carry-on bag. No special documentation is needed if you’re traveling domestically, but please contact a local consulate or burial advisor if you’re traveling internationally since the rules vary.”
    Delta Rules: “Cremated remains can be accepted as either carry-on or checked baggage, or shipped unaccompanied as cargo. The passenger must have a death or cremation certificate.”
    United Rules: If you’re traveling with ashes, we suggest you bring them as a carry-on bag. We also recommend you: Bring a death certificate and the Disposition Permit you received when the ashes were given to you.”
    So, the three majors treat cremains as part of your carry on which is usually 1 suitcase that can fit in the overhead bin/under seat and 1 item that must fit under the seat. So…if she has 3 items…she has to give up one!
    TSA rules must also be observed. So…there’s more to this story than the article alludes.

  16. I was on the side of Karen until she gratuitously and needlessly took a cheap shot at some Mexicans she’s never met and brought the “wide open border” (the United States doesn’t have open borders) into the discussion. Her mother probably died of embarrassment and asked to be cremated so her daughter didn’t have to visit her at a cemetery for all eternity.

  17. A little preview with the borders wide open cheap shot. Her entire Twitter feed is scary.

  18. Her Twitter handle is “bot” and her entire feed is nuts. We sure those weren’t Rush Limbaugh’s ashes? It’s like Rudy was tweeting as he drove a gulf cart drunk around the Villages and ran into a light pole at a Kid Rock concert.

  19. If a gate agent threatens you with arrest, tell the officer s/he threatened you and you were afraid for your safety.

  20. If only the flight crew would enforce the “one overhead and one under the seat” rule, there likely wouldn’t have been a problem. Just about every time I fly (admittedly not a lot) many people put both of their carry ons overhead.

  21. If only ALL OF THE AIRLINES would not let people put MORE THAN ONE ITEM IN THE OVERHEAD BINS… more people would get to keep their bags… ALso if they (FA’s) could accurately relay information on overhead status to the GA’s it would be better for all fliers!!

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