Why Airline Gate Agents Lie – Claiming Overhead Bins Are Full And You Have To Check Carry On Bags

The two most common complaints I see about airlines in social media, being offered with photos, are both about baggage. Passengers share photos of checked bags being damaged, and about overhead bins with plenty of space after being forced to check their carry-ons ‘because the bins were full’.

When overhead bins are full and passengers have brought their carry on bags onto the plane, they go searching for space and that takes time. When they finally give up and realize they’re going to need to check the bag, they come back to the front of the aircraft and the bag has to be tagged and placed into the hold. This all takes time, and it’s time at the last minute just before departure.

Put another way, gate checking bags from passengers that have already boarded is a frantic process that risks a slight delay to the flight. And a slight delay could wind up the difference between an on-time arrival and one that’s slightly late. With airlines selling short connections at some of their hubs of 40 minutes or less that could mean some passengers miss their next flight (and crew are late to their next flight, too).

This is the reason airlines install bigger overhead bins – it means fewer gate checked bags, and therefore fewer delays. It’s an investment that should pay for itself. Yet not all airlines and not all planes have them. And agents press customers to gate check their bags even on planes with bins that should accommodate a full-sized bag in the bin for each customer. (Passengers put their bags into these bigger bins wrong, they should go on their side to fit the most bags in.)

The gate agent gets judged on getting a flight out on time. At American they’re rated on on-time departures even when it’s a mechanical delay or lack of crew. They don’t get judged on customer satisfaction. So they err on the side of making passengers gate check bags earlier rather than waiting until bins are actually full.

American has even programmed the computers at their gates to instruct agents to require bags to be gate checked.

Gate agents and flight attendants on board generally can communicate, but that too takes time and effort. It’s far easier for the gate agent to simply declare overhead bins full, in case they are or in case they’re going to become full. Doing it earlier than later is better for the agent, since they bear none of the downside – passengers are already on board and it isn’t their problem – while the risk of having to gate check bags could mean a slight delay to the flight and that means getting yelled at by a manager.

Airlines set up the incentives that press gate agents to deliver a poor customer experience, because it’s more important to them to push back exactly on time than it is to let customers make full use of the amenities (overhead bin space) on board.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. When I worked a gate, we were A) told by managers to tell everyone the overheads were full, or B) told to take the F/As word for it.
    We didn’t have any say in the matter. Not complying was a good way to get written up.

  2. While lots of airlines are guilty of this particular sin, AA has by far the worst customer communication. This is most evident in their unwillingness to communicate truthfully about delays. They will frequently have a “boarding in 3 minutes” sign on an “on time” flight when the inbound aircraft is still 45 minutes from landing. Any actual delays are generally rolled out in 20 minute increments, even if it is obvious that they delay will take much longer. This is such an unnecessary pain point for customers.

  3. Why not predetermine an average number of average size bags that the particular plane can fit (60 ?) , deducted a few for margin, then cut if off when 55 bags have rolled in the front door? Use a clicker. Has to be better than lying and staring at empty bin space. Too simple, right?

  4. Gosh maybe if they didn’t charge for reasonable weight checked bags people would take less in each carry on…just trying to be logical here. But I suppose profits drives everything. I wonder if when they put on these ripoff fees again somebody even thought about the consequences.


  5. This is what happens when AA replaces human judgment and communication with an all-knowing infallible algorithm that naturally generates infuriating outcomes.

  6. I also believe it happens because gate agents are generally not smart enough to count over 20 with their shoes off. So they think “hmmm…one bag, two, bags, lots of bags, more bags, erp, bins full, gotta go on break.”

  7. As a former gate agent, it is correct that we are driven by the “push time” and really nothing else. I generally would let passengers carry on their bags but if bins get full, the gate agent then has to check the bag at the airplane door and ground crew has to get that bag to the belly of the plane. This takes extra time and a delay can be charged to the gate agent if this bag situation occurs. The ground crew, if they are not nice that day, will charge the delay to the gate agent for one bag, even if there were other factors delaying the ‘push back’. Often times, a gate agent is trying to get standby passengers on the flight or dealing with various other obstacles and taking a delay due to a bag is the last thing a gate agent wants. Putting your fate in the hands of the ground crew is a chance to get a delay charged to you as the gate agent and none of us wanted that.

  8. My personal solution:

    1. Track inbound flight and know when we’re boarding rather than waiting for announcement(s) or looking at any displays or even the app. Flighty is great for this — it’s new but it is down to the second.

    2. Buy F, carry-on only, and get in Group 1.

    When #2 can’t be done, just use free baggage allowance and check-in at the counter pre-security. This is when I wish I flew Delta. lol

  9. The “bins are full” declaration is an estimate. It has to be made well before the bins are actually full. There are dozens of people standing in the aisle of the plane who have not yet stowed their bags. There are dozens more people on the jetbridge with bags that are not yet on board, but cannot be called back to the gate for gate-checking.

  10. @TLU, that’s too logical and efficient. We humans have an instinctual need to muck up even the simplest of ideas.

  11. What greggb57 said. “I also believe it happens because gate agents are generally not smart enough to count over 20 with their shoes off,” really Mike?! Clearly you have never worked the gate or a flight. Then there are people like Mike who say they are not going to check their bag because they are sure there is space and proceed down the jet bridge only to discover there is not space, and now the gate agent has to run down and manually tag the bags of the air rebels further delaying the flight. No perfect answer to this problem which started when airlines started to charge for checking bags. Soutwest does not have this problem because they do not charge to check bags.

  12. Overhead bin policies vary greatly globally. In Australia and UK it’s not unusual to see empty bins because passengers’ bag size is severely restricted — well below US rules. Another oddity is crew carry-on which often far exceeds passenger allowances. Crew will use cabin overhead space in first class before passengers board and are usually hostile to the idea of moving anything they have placed there. And they can be prickly. One FA publicly scolded a passenger for just touching her bag which she had placed in the overhead above his seat.

  13. I have seen so many times on United that in boarding groups 1, 2 and 3 where people bring way more than the 1 carry and 1 personal that is usually allowed. The gate person allows them to bring on all that extra stuff and then tells the people in groups 4 and 5 that they are full and can’t bring on what should be allowed. This is so unfair. I travel alot for elderly parts, have to sometimes book my ticket thst is in groups 4 or 5 and I know I paid way more for that ticket than the group in front of me!!!!

  14. Perfect application for AI.

    I witnessed in amazement as a minority American gate agent in Philadelphia let other minorities walk on with their bags and at the same time prevented non minorities from bringing on similar baggage. Bags that had been in overhead bins for years all across the country, including PHL.

  15. I think it is worst at Frontier Airlines when gate agents (contract workers) get incentives (cash) for charging for carrying on bags at gate.

  16. For the same reason they can’t be honest about delays and blame air traffic control (ATC). I was called up to the counter before a flight and told, due to weather, this flight was going to be delayed and I would probably miss my connecting flight, so they re-booked me on a later one. Imagine my surprise when we boarded a few minutes later and pulled back from the gate on time. We taxied less than a minute before stopping. Another few minutes later, the pilot came on and said ATC was keeping them on the ground for a half an hour or so because of weather. BS!! My husband was a controller (military and FAA) and told me that it’s the AIRLINES who make the calls regarding weather and not ATC. The airline decided to keep that plane on the ground due to weather well before we boarded; they just loaded us up and pulled away from the gate so that they could claim an on-time departure.

  17. I dont like it when the females pick on the older women alone then let guys behind us take huge backpacks on how come they arent measured

  18. My favorite lying story happened recently with BA. The board kept indicating that the flight was on time, but announcements told us repeatedly that it was not. When I asked why they didn’t change the board, the response was “take it up with American; they manage the boards.”

    In this case, I was flying overnight to London and the later I got there, the less time I had before I could get into my hotel room. It was still incredibly irritating.

  19. A qualification for working for the airlines is the ability to lie every day for all day as far as I know. Some may disagree but I am pretty sure that they are lying.

  20. Checked baggage up to 2 bags should be FREE. Carry on for those without status should be $35 per bag for anything that doesn’t got under the seat

    Carry on will come to a screeching halt for 70% of the plane

  21. It wouldn’t be much of an issue if flight attendants actually restricted passengers from putting anything more than one carryon bag (and maybe a coat) in the overhead bins. Egocentric passengers dump all of their stuff in the overhead bins rather than under their seats, leaving less space for everyone else. One possible solution would be to tag carryon items with a specific “overhead bin” tag so only those items could go into the overhead bins.

    Lately, AA has announced before boarding that they will probably run out of carryon bag space and ask for volunteers to gate-check bags for free, then later tells those boarding in groups 8 & 9 that they will have to gate-check their bags.

  22. Stop charging for checked bags.

    Start charging for carry-ons.

    Solves everything. Including restoring 2T minute boarding times, not 45 or 50 — what an enormous waste.

    And no more need for those huge bins that turns the living space of the cabin into a soul crushing claustrophobic area where you can no longer even stand up at your seat. Just plain awful.

  23. In all the times I’ve flown, only TWICE have I been required to gate check.

    American Airlines both times even though flying FC and was one of the first to board.

    This is why I pay more to not fly them whenever possible.

  24. Agree with the free checked bags.. and in extension, streamline whatever process is going on behind the scenes so we get our bags faster than the 1 hour it takes at some airports.
    Also the less rollaboards in the bins, then more often I can store my backpack up there and stop having to move it under my seat when it’s the only bag I board with.

  25. In some airports the airline does not control the board, and it is difficult to get the airport to update the information. So you should always trust what the agent is saying and not what the board says. However if you have an app that is likely being controlled by the airline and also more likely to be accurate.

    Also for those Yahoos that want the gate agent to be sitting there counting bags, please remember there are about 30,000 other things that your gate agent is doing. And yes they are all trying to get your flight out on time. For some airplanes the computer alerted us after 100 people had boarded and every bag after that had to go down below.

  26. Patti: DItto was flying on AA FC and they refused to let me on with my carryon bag..Had to gate check it (tho it would fit in the overhead bin)n the rain and when I got it back it looked like it had been run over!!!

  27. @dee

    Mine was full of lithium batteries and equipment with batteries. Handed me a plastic bag and said, use this.

    So I got to drag it all on board just in a different carry on.

    How stupid is this?

    I’ve flown airlines all over the world including a few 3rd world death trap ones. Not once was I asked to gate check.

  28. free bags in the belly, paid bags in the bins, problem solved. I am a frequent flyer and the lower the cost of the ticket the more crap people haul onto the plane. It is absurd. Premium ticket, bring the extras, go on the cheap put it in the hold…..

  29. Let’s not forget US airlines – especially American- are 3rd world country carriers now. Best to keep expectations as low as possible.

  30. Feeling forced to gate check, be sure to ask to buy 10k of insurance for the bag.

  31. I don’t fly AA but I heard their planes were retrofitted with larger overhead bins, along the lines of the bins on the new MAX planes.

    Is this not true?

  32. Those pencil-jets like the one pictured seem to trigger the most preemptive gate-checking in my limited experience. And the bins the size of a kindergarten cubby would be a reason why.

  33. The “bag beg” and “bag tag” games get so tiresome. Just recently a gate agent told me I had to gate check a bag when a) I had a very tight connection to make; b) I was in Group 2; and c) I had been on the exact same aircraft type many times with the very same bag and it always fits. The response was literally “I don’t care.” “Can I try?” “They’ll just grab the bag before you make it on.”

    So I walk onto the plane as the guy grabbing gate check bags has his butt facing the line, and of course it easily fits overhead.

  34. Ahh, the joys of flying the airlines. I am in my late 30s, so old enough to remember what flying was like in the 90s, but young enough to have a few more decades to see where it goes from here. I am not optimistic.

  35. I find it interesting that the same people who think that an airline employee is not smart enough to count past 20, can’t figure out how to open a lavatory door with the words PUSH clearly marked on it, and don’t seem to understand that one carryon and one personal item, doesn’t mean 1+1 plus every knickknack that you couldn’t fit in the carryon.

  36. Lower the checked baggage fee to a reasonable price; say $10 per bag, or free; and see how it impacts carryon. More carryon happened when the greedy airlines started charging $25 per bag for checked baggage.

  37. The problem with counting bags assumes that people only put bags in the overhead. Coats, travel pillows, skate boards, pocket books all consume overhead space and nobody wants tell travelers to remove them during boarding since it will always result in an argument.

  38. I mean, the airlines have set themselves up for this nonsense. I hesitate to say this, but airlines like Spirit have figured this out: charge more for carry-ons than checked bags. Frontier’s bounty produces perverse incentives, but consistent enforcement of size limits is not a bad idea. Guarantee that checked bags will pop out in 20 minutes like DL, for a premium airline feel. Oh, and make sure FAs have someplace for their bags. Far too often, row 1 has the emergency/demo equipment on one side, FA bags on the other, and (of course) no underseat storage.

  39. I’ve always wondered about the wisdom in placing heavy items above your head in while flying with a whole lot of people you really don’t want to be crammed tightly together to begin with, not to mention safety !

  40. As a gate agent, I know firsthand that the boarding process is much quicker when people aren’t trying to shove their “carry on” bags into an overhead bin when it is clearly too big. I always like the “it fit last time” line when the last time was on an A350 and this time it is a CRJ900. Planes (and overhead bins) aren’t the same but to get the general public to understand that is almost impossible. For the moron who said gate agents aren’t smart enough to count past twenty, come walk a day in our shoes, especially in the summer when the weather can play havoc on flight schedules and you have to find alternative routes for hundreds of people. Maybe you’ll appreciate what we do instead of taking shots at us from the cheap seats.

  41. This is a problem the airlines, with the exception of WN, brought on themselves by charging for checking luggage. And also by cutting staffing on ground personnel as much as possible, meaning getting luggage sent up to baggage often takes too long. Some 30 years ago when before I left DL the customer was allowed 3 bags, they could check three or check 2 and carry 1 and we were pretty lenient as far as a carry on, meaning purses or small briefcases weren’t included. Worked as a gate agent many years and having to check luggage at the gate really wasn’t a problem, usually only around Xmas when people had large coats and gifts carried on that took up overhead space quickly.

  42. I personally have been happy any time I’ve been given the opportunity to gate check my carryon! I’m short and always find it a challenge to get it into and out of the overhead bin, often far from my seat. And it’s free, at least with WestJet, where they’ll often request that anyone who wants to gate check bring their bag to the agent. Those who don’t want to do this (e.g., because they’re in a hurry and can’t wait after their flight) aren’t required to.

  43. I may be wrong but I think fees (fuel, baggage, etc) are not taxed the same way fare revenue is taxed. Also, travel agency fare searches usually bring up the lowest fares not including fees. It’s only when you select a flight that you see the total cost. If these loopholes were closed I think fees would die off. Again, apologies if I got any of this wrong.

  44. Gotta teach passengers the right way to do this.: NO BAGS IN THE OVERHEADS until the space under the seat in front of you is full. Period. Small minds say “but I wanna stretch my legs…” Once you take off, put your underseat bag behind your calves and stretch all you want. Just before landing, put it back under the seat.

    NO bags in the overhead until underseat space is full, bulkheads notwithstanding.

  45. It was the same experienced just the other day with Icelandair. But ironically, there was one passenger who wanted his carry on to be checked in but the agent said, it was too small. Then, the passenger tried to expand his luggage but still the agent said no. The agent seamed to be a BULLY( I am the boss here!)
    When we were inside the plane, there was a lot of empty spaces in the overhead bin.

  46. The problem is that we think that luggage checked in at the gate goes directly in to the plane and surely be there upon arrival. Not always so. Case in point I checked a piece in st the gate with WesJet on an international flight. I saw the agent put the tag on the handle. Long story short luggage MIA for 3 weeks when Delta (where I bought my ticked) had a messenger company leave it in front of my house (I was 4,500 miles away and no one was home) in the hot Florida sun, rain bugs etc. With medicine, chocolate and presents in the suitcase! NO ONE TOOK RESPONSIBILITY AS IF IT DIDN’T HAPPEN!

  47. I am a gate agent. I have a clicker counter to count bags as I board. I know how many can fit in each type of aircraft. It’s rare that I am in error on the overhead bins being full. If anything, I have some that I have to run up to the counter to create a bag tag. The problem is most people will not put smaller items under the seat in front of them. People also come with 3 or 4 items. This time of year, it’s families and baby items. Regional jets do not accommodate ANY rollerboards. Checked bags these days are HUGE at the counter. Many people bypass the counter, and take these up to the gate, causing further fracas. I take umbrage in that you are saying we LIE. We may be mistaken, but to accuse us of LYING, just puts more fire on the flames of our job duties.

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