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. A recent bad experience with this…the gate agent decided halfway through that carry ons would need to be checked. Somehow my wife and 2 kids got in a different boarding group or something but my oldest and I were caught. I had a soft sided backpack with wheels, probably the smallest possible carry on that was just a bit too big to fit under the seat. Had to gate check it.
    I was mad, but even madder when I got on and people with those giant *might* fit in the bin hard side bricks were shoving them in with clearly plenty of room left. Of course my gate-checked soft side bag was damaged when we got it back at the carousel.

  2. I travel with a fairly compact backpack and have never been asked to gate check in my decades of frequent flying, but I would never do it, if asked. I would pay extra for bin space or take another flight before I let them gate check my backpack.

  3. The only time my gate checked (seconhand, cheap) carryon was slightly damaged on a WestJet flight, they replaced it on the spot with a new and better one, no questions asjed!

  4. If they want to speed up the boarding process then drop the checked baggage fees and I am pretty sure more people would check their bags then!

  5. What a stupid assed article. No one says they’re full. They say that the luggage won’t fit. Which is true. And around the time groups 8 and 9 board, generally speaking, the bins are full. This so-called writer/ reporter needs to get beat with a rubber hose, old school style. Moron.

  6. I usually travel with $25,000 worth of professional camera and computer gear in my legal carry-on. No way in hades would I ever accept for it to be gate checked.

  7. Mediaassassin, you are so wrong! This JUST happened to me AGAIN! Bins only 1/3 full yet I had to check my slim carry on. United Airlines out of EWR most recently when gate agent Rocco was having a bad day. Poor baby Rocco. Can’t handle his job!

  8. Agents do not deliberately lie about overhead bins being full. Bags are counted by agents as they board. They know when the rollaboard and carryon limit has been reached. That is the point where they make the announcement. Some people have smaller carryons that will fit under their seats and they chose that space instead. If everyone sat down as soon as they entered the plane it would be easier to quickly survey the overhead space and notify the agents, but that doesn’t happen. People walk to the restrooms or dig for a book in their overhead bag, or remember that they left their phone on in their bag. So this becomes impossible. If the airline took the time to let everyone do what they wanted it would take forever. A several 100 million aircraft doesn’t make money sitting on the ground. They are constantly moving and if we waited for everyone to settle in, they would miss their connections. So that is why you may sometimes find overhead space when they have announced that it is full.

  9. This has happened to me twice now. Both times it was American Airlines out of Pittsburgh. Once when I was flying to Spain and the other time to Indonesia. Both times I did a carry on because I’ve heard horror stories about suitcases not making it to final destinations on flights like this. Both times I was forced to check at the gate because the overhead bins were “full”. Both times they clearly were not full and both times I was assured at the gate that the suitcase will follow me to my final destination. To Spain, it did. To Indonesia, it did not. It somehow got sent to JFK where it sat FOREVER before getting sent back to PIT. They assured me it would be in Indonesia delivered to my hotel within 48 hours and that they would reimburse me for expenses related to the lost luggage. So far, neither is true and I got to spend my time in Indonesia stressed out.

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