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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  1. K. M. – KMA. I’m 6’4″. I’m using the space under the seat in front of me for my feet, and I’m putting my bag, regardless of it not being “big” in the overhead. I’ve paid for that space just like everyone else. I’m also putting it in the overhead on the opposite side to my seat so I can see it. Go ahead and touch it – FAFA.

    James – GFYS. I don’t trust the process to safeguard the $$$$ of electronics I have with me (as a necessary part of my work).

    Sal – KMA along with K.M., bootlicker.

  2. If airlines enforce the rule on dimensions and weight of carry on at the gate or check in then there should be no problem. What frustrates me is having to checkin my carry on that meets airline standards only to see other passengers boarding with all their oversized crap.

  3. This check your carry on has a 2 edged sword. Sometimes, when asked to check my regulation size carry on, and I have a checked bag, I do so to get a free checked bag when limited by my destination.

  4. If passengers would follow the rule of bag in the overhead and one under the seat there be plenty of space and no problems.

  5. When I was told that I could not put my fully compliant bag filled with expensive camera gear in the overhead thr flight attendant made me put it all in a PLASTIC GARBAGE BAG, which she then flung into the overhead like a bag of rocks. None of this “saved” any time, and I am currently suing American Airlines in court for the damage that ensued.

  6. For those that don’t know, FA let the gate agent know when the bin space is at 70%. 70% is the trigger for gate agents to start checking bags. We use 70% as a guide because we still have a jetbridge full of passengers with roller boards and by the time they get on board the bins will be at capacity. Some times it doesn’t math out correctly and we have extra bin space available and sometimes we still need to check bags. It’s not a science but that’s all we have to go by. And with passengers now arguing over a backpack under the seat and taking up bin space for roller boards the bins fill even faster. So, no we are not lying to people but we are doing our best to get your flight out on time and not get delayed because once we are in the air now we have to field questions about tight connections when 10 min saved could have been the difference. So before you start calling people Liars understand what we are trying to accomplish.

  7. Even if everyone put their personal and carry-on where they should. There would not be still space in overhead. Planes were made with limited space. And that’s a reality. Don’t blame the flight attendants or gate agents for this. Blame the airline for not doing better.

    While communication could be better between flight attendant and gate agent, boarding is messy. Much of it is based on conflict resolution during a high stress period for everyone. Hence why emotions are high when dealing with carry-on baggage and personal items. Everyone thinks their own bag or possession is important.

    Ive witnessed during my time onboard working, no matter how many staff you have onboard – boarding and its baggage problem doesn’t go away. For some people, they don’t pack well that they make it easy to grab their stuff before boarding. Others choose bad timing to grab stuff before putting in the bin/seat under them. All of it results from personal decisions which benefit their self and their own time.

    It is why when I work onboard, I always mention this: Everyone is part of the problem but also part of the solution. You can decide whether you want to contribute to the problem or be part of the solution.

  8. It’s funny how Amtrak doesn’t have these problems. Maybe it’s because they open all doors!

  9. We fly a lot, mostly with Delta. We normally fly comfort plus which let’s us board towards the front. We watch time and time again people bringing on more and bigger bags than they are supposed to. If gate agents enforced the rules, that are already there, there would be a lot fewer problems.

  10. United has done this to me TWICE on the current trip. In both cases I was on the last boarding group so I could see how 50 PERCENT of the overhead space was still free! On my most recent leg they forced us to check and when we were the almost last ones on there were multiple empty spaces that could’ve accommodated our bags. But this time we were forced to CHECK THROUGH, not just gate-check.

    Well, now we’re stuck at a layover that may never leave tonight, because after mechanical delays there’s no airplane, but all our amenities were sent all the way through instead of gate-checked (WHY???) because ‘”there’s no space” — a blatant lie.

    This is inexcusable.

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