Why Airlines Make You Gate Check Bags When There’s Still Overhead Bin Space Free

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.

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.

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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Comments

  1. Simple solution: adjust the departure and arrival times by an extra 5 minutes. Lying to the customers that there isn’t enough space in the overhead bins does not inspire confidence or loyalty.

  2. More simple and honest solution, make it a part of the ticket class purchased. For example, on AA all basic economy fares require the bag to be checked. This way the customer chooses the level of service they desire and the GAs never have to lie to the passengers.

  3. I’ve thought it makes more sense to have free checked bags and charge for every carry-on. Faster boarding/deplaning. But revenues might suffer so it will probably never happen.

  4. Larger overhead bins is the answer. I flew United a few weeks ago and the agent called me up to check my carry on. When I told him I had a 1 hr connection to Japan, he changed his mind. I got on and yeah, overhead bin space was at a premium. I appreciated the on-time departure. But that was an older United plane. The next flight on UA on a narrowbody was a 737 max that had newer bins and plenty of space. When I fly AA, there is a lot of overhead bin space on all of the flights. I don’t know if they have upgraded all of their bins yet or not.

    Another thing the airlines can do is just simply perform better on baggage handling. I don’t like checking for a few reasons. I have valuables in my bag that I have to remove if I check because, well frankly they will lose the bag sooner or later, and they will also pilfer it. My rule is pack light, and avoid checking. But if I check, it is a direct non-stop flight and no valuables in the bag.

  5. I’ve added the real reason.
    Employees are unable to calculate the space vs load. That requires a level of intelligence and caring about the CUSTOMER”S property.

  6. The airlines could do a much better job of instructing passengers on how to place bags in the overhead bins correctly to get the most bags in, and hence provide better customer satisfaction. Run a continuous loop video in the gate area, the gate lice will have something to occupy their time.

  7. One thing to consider here. The gate agents frequently are advised by the flight attendants that the bins are full. They don’t have time to check for themselves and take the flight attendant’s word for it. It’s not always the gate agent’s fault.

  8. If parking garages can install sensors over every parking spot and even have a sign at the entrance telling drivers how many spots are vacant, airlines can do this for overhead bin space. This isn’t new tech btw, parking garages have been doing this for years and years.

  9. I think you underestimate the lag time between when the flight attendants tell the gate agent that bins are full and when the gate agent starts checking bags, accounting for the line coming down the jetway that already has large bags w/ them.

    and the real difference between having to gate check bags is whether the plane has oversized overhead bins that can store bags on their sides.

  10. My take on it is is that the lying is good practice for lying to passengers about other things by the big three USA airlines. I have not had gate checking bags required on JetBlue but then again, the cheapest coach tickets come without a carry-on bag, only a personal item. I usually pay for a checked bag both ways along with a seat assignment both ways and am still less than the next higher class of ticket if I get the cheapest ticket. By doing it that way, I can carry more in my bag and JetBlue has solved the problem of too many carry-on bags. On international flights to Southeast Asia, it is usually not a problem but if the airline thinks that they will have a space problem, they will find volunteers to check their roller carry-ons. I have done it on EVA several times and had no problem. I carry a lightweight nylon duffel bag for those items I need with me and check the roller bag, which I lock.

  11. Anytime someone tried to gate check my bag, I say nothing and just board the plane hiding the gate check tag and 100% of the time there was plenty of room

  12. Flight attendant here.

    The gate agent says MULTIPLE TIMES that the overhead space is reserved for the larger bags. The flight attendant says MULTIPLE TIMES that the overhead bins are reserved for the larger bags.

    If people would follow simple instructions this would be less of an issue, but every person thinks they’re the most important person on the plane and everyone else be damned.

    Have you personally ever placed your backpack or briefcase in the overhead, even though it would fit just fine under the seat in front of you?

    If so, you’re the problem here.

  13. AA in CLT demanded we gate check our FC bags long before we even stepped on board. In fact, NOBODY had stepped on board because this was almost an hour before the flight left.

    Their “excuse” was it was a full flight. So damn what?

    FC should NEVER be inconvenienced like this. My first and LAST flight thru CLT.

    I go out of the way to avoid that dump, even if I have to pay more.

  14. K.M.,
    I purposely only bring one item so that I don’t have to place it at my feet because I would rather have the legroom. My bag won’t fit on some planes but will on many under the seat, but why should I be penalized for bringing less than the maximum amount of stuff with me?

  15. Putting a bag under the seat can be annoying.. I get that.

    You know what’s worse? Being forced to check your bag – no longer having access to it for the rest of your travel day, and being forced to go to baggage claim.

    The “why should I be penalized” attitude is exactly what I mean by saying everyone on the plane thinks they’re the most important person.

    It’s not being penalized, it’s simply being a decent human being.

    Your bag doesn’t have to be in your leg space the whole flight, just taxi, take off, and landing. During the flight simply put it behind your legs. It’s barely an inconvenience compared to having your bag checked against your will.

    If everyone’s boarded and there’s space left, you can put your bag up at that point..

  16. You are spot on. It is frustrating for many of the reasons mentioned here. The airlines create the problem by charging for checked bags and losing many checked bags and make us suffer for it. I have seen many agents simply go by the number of pax boarded or by the boarding group number to start requiring bags to be checked. A better way would be to count bags vs. people.

  17. I purposely check my bag and only bring a small backpack as a carryon.. it is going in the overhead. End of discussion..

  18. I wonder why I’ve never experienced gate checking on any of the Asian airlines, but have experienced gate checking on every US airline I’ve flown (I’ve never flown Southwest).

  19. Requiring gate checking luggage to insure an on time departure is a false scenario as many times gate attendants will require gate checking when the flight is already delayed 15, 30, 45 minutes or more. It makes no sense to require “on time departure “ standards for delayed flights. What should be enforced is strongly enforcing the amount of on board luggage allowed. Frequently I witness passengers with excessive luggage brought on board, either in size or number of pieces.

  20. The airlines created this issue. Not me or any customer. Plenty of airlines have figured it out. I love flying Spirit, Allegiant, (and the only thing I like about Frontier) because no issues with overhead space. And the flight attendants always reserve the space above the first 1-2 rows for the bulkhead. I’m less inclined to feel bad about putting a bag up when crew on many airlines can avoid eye contact with a paying First Class customer and say overhead bins are first come first served while the person in row 1 walks back to coach.

    Airlines need to do better policing and using bag sizers. On American today from Miami, the agent made a Concierge Key’s companion size her bag and said it was too big. I didn’t wait around for the response as my pass was scanned and I went around them. But they didn’t board the plane with the bag. Second leg, watched someone go on ahead of me with no roller bag but a violin and a backpack and a laptop bag and a big pillow without being challenged.

    I could just as easily say it’s selfish for those with multiple bags to take up all the space. Or I Can put my bag up and maybe volunteer to put it at my feet if asked. But let’s see how quick boarding finishes when people get back up at the end to start stowing bags from under the seat.

  21. One thing I don’t see mentioned here is that there are employees (supervisors, managers and on up) whose salary bonus is tied to this metric of getting flights out on time if not earlier. They put tremendous pressure on gate agents to meet this goal because if too many flights leave 1 or 2 minutes late, then no bonus for the aforementioned employees.

  22. It sad that folks can’t trust the process. Instead, many passengers would rather make a federal case out of having to gate-check a bag and delay the flight by arguing with the poor gate agent, inconveniencing everyone on the flight. Airline passengers do not need to be expressly advised in a qualified manner that the agent has received indication which estimates a strong probability that there may not be any overhead bin space remaining by the time they get onboard; and instead of potentially delaying the flight as a result of the passenger navigating against the flow of those boarding to bring the bag to the front to be gate-checked when the find there isn’t space, the airline prefers to gate-check the bag in advance to prevent this risk? This goes without saying and if the passenger needs to hear this from the boarding agent to understand that the airline isn’t “lying”, then the passenger doesn’t trust the airline in the first place and shouldn’t be doing business with the carrier to begin with. As the great George Carlin said, the public sucks!

  23. Just happened to my spouse. He was on AA flight, boarded group 5. Maybe 20 people in front of him (first flight out, no one on the plane from a connecting flight). Thet made everyone from group 5-8 check their bags. That is crazy.

  24. Having flown out or orlando recently with security lines almost 45 minutes if everyone checked their bags first the airlines would leave on time and not have to gate check bags and all.
    I always check a bag much less stress then carrying everything on board

  25. It’s not just a lie. It’s fraud. The airline sells you a ticket, often based upon fare class, that “includes” one free carry-on bag and one personal item. If they breach that promise, passengers should be compensated, because they are not delivering what was promised when they sold the ticket.

    Never mind the twisted logic that the airlines (1) offer “free” carry-on bags, while (2) charging ridiculous fees for checking a bag, then (3) check your bag for free at the gate. Clever passengers will bring their bags to the gate, then check them for free once the gate agent starts making noises about bins being full, rather than paying up front for a checked bag. If on-time departures were really important, they would check bags for free and charge for carry-ons.

    Of course, nobody would care if there was not a very real chance that a checked bag would (1) get lost, (2) get damaged, (3) miss a connection, or (4) take an unreasonably long time to get to baggage claim. If airlines would invest in the staff and the technology to reliably get un-damaged luggage to baggage claim by the time the passengers de-plane, hit the restroom, and walk down to the carousels, many folks (but not all) would be happy to relieve themselves of the physical hassle of hauling their own bags on and off the airplane. But while on-time departures are “important”, they’re not THAT important. Easier, and cheaper, to just lie to all their customers.

  26. Southwest got it right: bags fly free does make the airline more profitable.

    As for the rest, carry on bags make boarding hell and must cost them millions of dollars given how much planes sit idle at the gate waiting.

  27. The bag beg and the bag grab happen rarely on foreign carriers. They are doing something better.

    Beware of unintended consequences those who say they should charge for carryon instead of checked luggage. The more bags that are checked, the longer they take to load, the more get lost or damaged, and the longer the offloading and claim process takes.

  28. I spent twenty-five years as a flight attendant for one of the Big Three airlines. From the agents’ gateroom perspective, bag space estimation is an art, not a science. Good communication with the onboard crew is essential, but in the rush to an on-time departure bag space can be missed. As a muscular six-footer, I could repack the overhead bins on an entire Airbus 320 to maximize space in two minutes flat. However, on most crews I was surrounded by more Little Women than Louisa May Alcott, and for them this wasn’t an option–nor is this in their job description.

  29. KM
    I would say individual passengers placing multiple items in the overhead bins is more of a problem than me placing my backpack, the only item I carry onboard, in the overhead. There should be plenty of space for every passenger to have one piece of luggage up there. I shouldn’t have to sacrifice my legroom to accommodate other individuals placing 2 items (or more) in the overhead.

  30. Air Canada is notorious for gate checking bags on aircraft with empty overhead bins. Adding insult to injury is them losing your bags (delay) for most of your overseas vacation. AC has definitely changed my behavior because I won’t fly them again! Fair warning.

  31. If it is simple and makes sense airlines are not going to do it! Period.

    Happy Holidays and Fly safe!

  32. The problem is when you’ve got a connecting flight, a gate check makes you very likely to miss it, which really invalidates that tight connection excuse.

  33. This makes me crazy. If I pay for a carry on, I should get to carry on. If there isn’t enough room, don’t allow it to be sold. Flew latam last week, forced everyone to gate check so no one had to have stuff at their feet, and they destroyed my brand new bag. Even worse, they had no one at their counter so I just have to pay for a new bag. Had to tape it for my next three flights

  34. I saw an ingenious move recently where someone was asked to gate check bag (well told to). They asked the agent for another bag then to transfer all the stuff the agent’s announcement said not to put in. Said he has two laptops, a projector, medical device, etc. The agent just told him never mind.

  35. I was just on a flight where not only did a guy carry on THREE ITEMS, but he then proceeded to put THEM ALL in the overhead bins!!!! THIS is why that space fills up so fast!

  36. Crybaby last passengers to get on the plane expect to hold up everyone with their stupid carry on. Enough already. Tough luck, just check it and sit down. So frustrating being seated and having some late arriver act like they are so important. Smashing everyones bags already up there. I wish all airlines made group 6 or later check their bags. It would help getting there on time for everyone.

  37. Just flew Delta from DC to JFK and the gate agent said Main 3 carry-ons will need to be checked. Once at JFK and walking past Delta gates, heard another gate agent declare they need 30-40 carry-on bags checked. I knew at that moment it was a scam. Passengers need to be in our best behavior as they are federal employees, but they can lie to us? Really? Shame on you Delta

  38. This is one of the airlines’ cardinal sins and has been happening more and more. One of the more recent was JetBlue, generally preferred over other airlines, but the gate agent was just a rude nasty man and there was zero communication with the flight attendants as the bin space was only ever 1/3 full. I complained online after the fact and I think they threw $20 flight credit or points or something my way. The worst offender I’ve seen is TAP—I’m convinced they get bonuses for the more bags they deny, but I learned the second time to just cover up the bag tag they stick on, with my jacket, and then I take it on board and lo and behold it fits just fine and plenty of space bins about 50% full on all the flights flown with them.

  39. Here’s the skinny from a FA perspective:
    Not all flights are created equal. There are many flights where there may be man top fliers who board from zones 1-5. Example would be LGA-CLT. Huge business market. OH space goes fast. Leisure markets like, say ATL-MCO will have more families who have checked backs leaving more OH space. Unfortunately not all agents think about those things, After 37 years, I do.

    Secondly, when I’m the #1, I try to see how bags look and call to the back for a review of bags. If I’m getting calls saying almost full, the agents are advised. Many times the fas will say room for about so and so more bags. When calling the agents, I have to make a judgment in hopes I’ve included those already in line.

    Thirdly, not all AC have the huge bins. At AA, most do, so rare the moment all bin space is taken. If all are woeking as a team and making sure bags are placed in adequately, there should be room for all.

    Lastly, communication is key. Everyone needs to be onboard to get the flight out on time and room for all bags. Honestly, with the exception of the 777’s and 319,320’s, at AA, there is no reason to have to check a bag unless its a strong business market. I must say boarding times need to be revised. The current boarding times are archaic and don;t reflect increase of seats on almost all airplanes.

  40. As a gate agent, it is funny reading some of these comments. One of the biggest reasons for delays is due to passenger inability to board quickly because they are trying to jam bags in an overhead bin that are clearly too big to fit. These are usually the same people that will argue up and down that it will fit. Most of the time, we end up checking it on the jet bridge because they are too stubborn to listen to those of us that know what we are doing, hence causing a delay. Delay on top of delay ends up causing missed connections and unhappy/unruly passengers that the airline has to answer after we have made our best efforts to avoid this.

  41. Agreed. Furthermore, passengers often assume all overhead bins are the same size, when the bins can, in fact vary even from one aircraft of the same type to another.

  42. As a FA we make numerous announcements asking passengers,as they are boarding, to place their bags sideways in the overhead bins that will accommodate suitases being placed on their side. However, they rarely listen and continue to place the suitcase flat, thereby reducing the number of suitcases going in the bin. FAs have to struggle down the tight aisle, blocked by boarding passengers, to reach up to the bin, take the suitcase out and reposition it on its side so that more items can go in the bin. Not only that, but we instruct the agents to tell the passengers before they board how to place their suitcases in the bin. Passengers should take responsibility from their actions and not place the blame solely on the airline. And, those passengers who, when they get to their row, proceed to open their carry on and remove their phones, reading material, or whatever, thereby blocking other boarding passengers to get to their seats, shame on them.

  43. Many single aisle jets have overhead bins that don’t allow bags that meet the airline’s requirements to be placed on their sides, they have to go flat. There is a good solution for the fit, have a poster in plain view showing how the bags have to be placed for the correct fit. If airlines did that, I would check it every time.

  44. According to airline surveys, the most important thing was departing and arriving on time. Carryon bags take up alot of time. Especially on a narrow body plane when a crew member can’t see what bin space is still available and if they do getting the info to the gate agent is not as easy as calling or texting. And honestly some of the bags being brought on weren’t meant to be a carryon. Just because it has wheels and made it through security doesn’t make it a carry on. Also, the increase in cancellations due to weather is because a few times during storms people were stuck on the runway for too much time and things ran out. But now to avoid paying the complaining passengers because of it the airlines preemptively cancel flights and many thousands of people are inconvenienced as opposed to the thousand or so who originally complained. And now with the climate challenges we face it’s even worse. You asked for it you got it.

  45. Quite simply, the agents get an automatic notification that advises when remaining bags should be checked. Yes, the crew may communicate too, but the auto-prompt is what will cause automatic checking from the latter groups

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