One of the most common complaints I see about airlines in social media, paired with photos, is overhead bins with plenty of space after a passenger is forced to check their carry-on bag because, the gate agent had said, ‘the bins were full’.
This is frustrating for customers, who aren’t just inconvenienced (separated from their belongings, they have to wait at baggage claim – and risk getting lost). It’s also perplexing. Why was the gate agent lying to us? The reason is actually simple.
- When overhead bins are full and passengers have brought their carry on bags onto the plane, they go searching for space. 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. That takes time.
- Bringing bags on the aircraft that then have to be gate checked, usually at the last minute, risks missing a flight’s scheduled departure time by a minute or two.
So airline gate agents make passengers check their carry-on bags even when there’s plenty of space yet.
All kinds of bin space on my @AmericanAir flight from TPA to PHX, but some manager named Carl forced the last 30-40 of us to check bags because he wanted to “try” for an on time departure after arriving flight was late. Poor customer service! I’ll fly @SouthwestAir pic.twitter.com/bOeaYxNFVH
— @Brian__Ladd (@CosmoBLadd) November 3, 2023
— Bill Millinor (@BMillinor) October 30, 2023
@Delta threatened to deplane me in front of everyone, when I told them that as a passenger my experience is that with a “zone-main 2” access, there is a lot of space for my luggage. They were extremely disrespectful, including the supervisor. Evidently I was correct. pic.twitter.com/JhTlVMj6CT
— Mission talk (@mission_talk) November 3, 2023
Why do you lie to us that the overhead bins are full when they aren’t? It isn’t very American to do that. Frustrating. Why can’t you just be honest? pic.twitter.com/ykHwHD9W13
— Jon Ferguson (@JonF4Jesus) July 18, 2023
A slight delay to a flight 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 30 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.
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.
And gate agents get 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. Individual agents 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.
Gate agents and flight attendants on board generally can communicate. They should communicate. Agents should only force customers to gate check bags when they are highly confident bins are really full. But that’s time-consuming work. It takes effort. And increasingly airlines have just a single agent working the gate to save money, instead of two or more.
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.
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.
I should add that this is true for American Airlines, Delta, and United. It’s not nearly as common for Southwest Airlines. Southwest doesn’t charge for checked bags, so passengers don’t schlepp nearly as much on board. Simple incentives. This also helps Southwest board and deplane quickly, spending less time on the ground where planes aren’t making money.